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Understanding Screenwriting #63: The Social Network, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #63: The Social Network, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Social Network, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Red, Two and a Half Men, CSI.

The Social Network (2010. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, inspired by the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. 121 minutes.)

…and the rest of the movie’s not bad either: The Social Network has the best opening scene in a movie since that great montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in Up (2009). What I said about that applies here: “Pay attention to the details in the montage; EVERYTHING in it comes back throughout the picture, sometimes in surprising ways. Meanwhile, it works because you are so caught up in the story and the characters.” Like the sequence in Up, The Social Network’s opener is fast and inventive. But unlike that montage, this is an all-dialogue scene. Mark, a Harvard student, and Erica, a Boston University student, are having drinks in a bar. Mark is putting down Harvard and especially its social upper class. Listen to the details he mentions, such as the sport of rowing, the A Cappella singing group, and the Final (secretive) clubs, all of which show up again. Mark’s brain and mouth work at warp speed, but he seems unable to control them both in a social situation like this. This will also come back into play in several different ways in the film. We may agree with some of Mark’s put-downs of the social elite at Harvard, but he has no concept of how obnoxious he is to Erica. He is not a nice person, but you can’t take your eyes or ears off him.

No, the development people did not insist on Sorkin writing in a “pet-the-dog” scene to show you he is really a nice guy. He is not a nice guy, but we can’t not watch him. Casting Jesse Eisenberg is a smart move, because Eisenberg has that sensitive, hangdog look and persona in his other films that he plays against here beautifully. And Erica does not wilt under the onslaught of Mark’s words. She is played by Rooney Mara, who will take over as Lisbeth Salander in the American version of The Girl With… films, and after this scene, I have a little more hope about the American versions. Erica dumps Mark with a great final speech. She tells him, “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you are an asshole.” She’s right, we agree with her, and we are still willing to follow Mark because we want to know what he is going to do about all this. This scene is great screenwriting, and her line “And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true” is one of the best set-up lines in movies since “Dammit, Osgood, I’m a man.”

Now jump ahead to the final scene. We have followed the deposition-taking in the two cases of people suing Mark. Marilyn, one of the young women attorneys on Mark’s legal team, has looked as though she might be interested in Mark. In the final scene she tells them his primary lawyer is working on a settlement agreement that Mark will be asked to sign the next day. Mark is baffled. He is ready to go to court. Marilyn tells him her job is as a jury analyst, and in less than a minute she lays out why Mark’s behavior in the deposition hearings will destroy his case if it goes to a jury. She’s right. Then she tells him that she does not think he is an asshole, but that he is trying to be one. And she leaves. And what does Mark, the founder of Facebook, do? He is on his computer, goes on Facebook and tries to befriend…Erica. Who is not responding. See how the opening scene plays out at the end?

To go back to the beginning: After the scene with Eric, we follow Mark as he goes back to his room, noticing all the other couples on campus. And being a computer geek, he writes nasty things about Eric in his blog, which come back to haunt him when he runs into her later in the film. So then he decides to set up a website of sorts in which Harvard guys can vote on who the hot chicks are. He does it very quickly, because we know he has a quick mind. One other way the opening scene sets the tone for the film is that the dialogue is as speedy as that in His Girl Friday (1940), so it establishes the pace of the film. We know we are going to have to run to catch up, always a good sign. Just as we may not have caught everything Mark said in the opening scene, we certainly, unless we are computer geeks ourselves, are not going to follow all of the techno-babble of setting up this website, or the Facebook that follows. Sorkin is smart enough and experienced enough, especially with The West Wing, to know that the audience does not have to understand everything the characters say. A lot of the political dialogue in The West Wing and the techno-babble here is the MacGuffin in the series and the film. The characters know what they are talking about, and we know they know what they are talking about and we don’t need to understand all the nuances.

As Mark begins to develop what becomes Facebook, we suddenly get thrown ahead into the two sets of depositions. Well, we know the film is moving at a fast clip, so we take the change in stride. We are also far enough along in the story that the depositions are not giving us anything new. What they are giving us are alternative views of what happened at Harvard in 2003-2004. Eduardo Saverin, the closest person Mark has to a best friend, comes up with suggestions and money to start Facebook, and then Mark pushes him out. The Winklevoss twins, the epitome of Harvard types, approach Mark with an idea for a social website. He agrees to work on it, then leads them on while he develops Facebook. Eduardo has one lawsuit against Mark, the Winklevii, as they are referred to, have another.

At about the halfway point in the film, Sorkin gives us a new character, Sean Parker. I have always thought the third quarter of a film is the most difficult to write. You have established your main characters and their situation, but you are not ready to end the story. You need to develop it in some way and/or divert us. Big action sequences, such as the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) or the car chase in Bullitt (1968) are usually in the third quarter, and the arrival and departure of the Jack Nicholson character in Easy Rider (1969) takes up exactly the third quarter of that film. In The Social Network we have spent the first hour in the hothouse of Harvard, complete with everybody’s sense of entitlement that comes with it. The Winklevii arrange a meeting with the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers, and Sorkin gives us a great scene of dueling entitlements. Mark, in his own way, feels entitled to join one of the final clubs as well as hitting on Boston U. coeds. At this halfway point Mark is not thinking beyond Harvard and perhaps a few other Ivy League schools. One thing the film gets beautifully is how haphazardly Facebook developed. Usually in “great inventor” movies, the genius sees it all at once, not so here. Sean Parker, an entrepreneur who invented Napster, sees a much larger potential for Facebook, so he helps Mark take it out of Harvard. Sean is also everything that Mark wants to be: handsome, sexy, free, and easy—a little too easy—with money. Mark realizes that he and Facebook do not have to stay in the gilded cage of Harvard. He also learns from Sean how to be an even bigger son of a bitch than he already was.

Sorkin’s screenplay is beautifully structured, with one notable exception. As Mark expands Facebook to other colleges, the Winklevii go off to England to row in a regatta. The regatta scene goes on, and on, and on, and then is followed by a scene of the twins meeting Prince Albert of Monaco, which has nothing to do with the story Sorkin is telling. All we need to know is that the twins are in England and learn that Facebook is now available in England. You could do that with a couple of stock shots of the regatta and a short scene in a British-looking room. So how did this sequence get into and stay in the picture? I have mentioned before that when you are writing screenplays you are writing for performance. That usually means for the actors, but it also means you should, particularly if you are writing a script on spec, give the director something to show off with. The director in this case is David Fincher and with the exception of the regatta sequence, this is his best film. It’s his best because unlike all of his others, it is not over-directed. As with many directors who come out of music videos, Fincher wants to stuff everything he can into every shot. Here he doesn’t really have time, since Sorkin’s script moves at such a blistering pace. Fincher’s direction is rich and full (look at the scene of Mark going back to his room after Erica dumps him), but unlike Se7en (1995) or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Fincher’s talents, which are considerable, are put to the service of the story and the characters. Amazing what a director can truly accomplish if he does that.

Inside Job (2010. Written by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt. 120 minutes according to IMDb, 107 minutes by my count) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009. Written by Michael Moore. 127 minutes.)

Inside Job

The ways we got screwed: I finally got around to watching Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story a couple of weeks ago and found it had dated badly. At one point he is comparing the incompetence of American carmakers with the Japanese, who are wonderf—oops, this was done before the current troubles with Toyota. Since Moore’s film was made in the early months of the Obama administration, Moore assumes the problems are going to be taken care of. As Inside Job makes devastatingly clear, it didn’t quite happen. Moore’s filmmaking is his usual casually structured, funny, manipulative, over-the-top style, which is entertaining, but suffers very much in comparison with the narrative drive of Inside Job.

The director of Inside Job is Charles Ferguson, who previously made the great, chilling 2007 documentary No End in Sight. In that film, Ferguson managed to land interviews with a lot of government officials who were involved in the run-up to and management of the Iraq War. He treated even the idiots like adults and got great material on what happened. I have no idea how Ferguson gets those kinds of people to talk to him, but he does it well, and does again in Inside Job. We have talked before about how documentaries can introduce us to fascinating characters, and Feguson’s docs are beautiful examples of that.

In Inside Job he is dealing with the financial collapse of the last few years. Naturally he starts in Iceland. I was a bit surprised when I got into the theater showing the film and saw that the screen masking was set for the 2:35 to 1 widescreen ratio of Panavision, but in the opening scenes it is clear why Ferguson is going wide. Iceland is a gorgeous country. But what are we doing there in a movie about the financial meltdown? Well, Iceland is the perfect storm. They had a wonderful, conservative banking system that got deregulated and started making huge, ridiculous loans. It is a model for the American disaster in simpler terms and helps give us our bearings as the film tracks the American story. (The wide screen is also nicely used for the explanatory graphics.) We get economists who recognized the potential problems, and those who did not. Harvard, which took its lumps in The Social Network, really gets raked over the coals here, since its economists were heavy promoters of deregulation of banking and the stock market. Ferguson has some wonderful interviews with the Harvard economists who still don’t understand, or at least will not admit, that they contributed to the debacle. One of the great running gags in the film is Beck and Bolt’s narration telling how some of the big names (Bernanke, Geithner, etc) screwed things up and then having a title that each one refused to be interviewed for the film. One of those was Larry Summers. Yup, the same character we see in The Social Network. It’s not a good time for Harvard and Summers.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010. Screenplay by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. 101 minutes.)

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Very lite: The credits on this one do not come up until the end of the film, so I did not know as I was watching it it was based on a novel. But early on I began to suspect. Why? First of all, it is very talky, and not in the good Social Network–Aaron Sorkin way. The characters are just standing around chatting about various situations. Not only will they not shut up, but Craig, the main character, has a voiceover that also will not shut up. I suspected the voiceover came from the first person writing in the novel, which turns out to be the case. One advantage to seeing a movie in a multiplex in a shopping mall is that you can go into the mall bookstore and check this stuff out after the film. Another giveaway of its novelistic origins is that it is not very dramatic. Craig, a troubled-but-not-too-troubled teen, is feeling suicidal and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. He thinks he will only be there overnight, but they insist he stay five days. His stress, which mostly comes from having to fill out an application form for a school his father wants him to attend, is rather bland, and the film does not make us feel how stressful this is for Craig. It may come across in the writing in the novel, but not in the film. On film he is mostly a whiny teenager. So we assume he is going to come through this OK, which eliminates most of the drama.

The writers do try to give us some “cinematic” elements, but most of them fall flat. When Craig is promoted to being the lead singer in a musical therapy group session, the song turns into a music video. That could be fun, but the writers keep it as just a performance video, which gets tiresome rather quickly. Although Craig is a teenager, he is placed on an adult floor, with of course a cute teenage girl, Noelle, and late in the picture they “escape” the floor and dash to the roof. We are now in Truffaut-land or at the least in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), without alas the cinematic panache.

Craig meets and talks with some of the other patients, but we get very little characterization of them. None of them seem to have problems that are that serious. Craig very easily gets his roommate, who has not left his room in months, out into a music session. The most interesting character is Bobby, who is sort of Craig’s guide, but we learn very little about him. Zach Galifianakis gives a nice, muted performance as Bobby, but the writers have not given him much to dig into. Craig does have a sort-of girlfriend on the outside, Nia, but his being torn between her and Noelle turns the third quarter into typical teen romantic angst. Now what would have happened if instead of Noelle, the girl in the hospital had been Precious?

One of the lines several reviewers have used about this film is that it is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) lite. Very, very lite. There is not even an equivalent to Nurse Ratched, which certainly provided drama in the earlier film. Here the staff is loving and helpful. A note in the novel tells us that Vizzini spent some time as a patient in an adult psychiatric hospital the year before he wrote the book, so I suspect he feels grateful to the people who helped him. But if you are writing a novel or a film, you can give it a lot more edge. The great Viola Davis plays Dr. Eden Minerva—can the name be any more obvious?—and she is effectively collecting unemployment benefits. Imagine what she could do if they gave her even half a Nurse Ratched to play.

Red (2010. Screenplay by Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber, based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. 111 minutes.)

Red

Yeah, it’s based on a graphic novel. So what?: Readers from the very early days of this column in 2008 will remember that I got into trouble with the fanboy crowd by whacking graphic novels and the movies made from them. See US#2 and US#3 for some of the reactions, comments, and replies. So guess what, folks? I enjoyed Red enormously. Partly this is because it is one of those geezer action movies that we have had a couple of this year. I passed on The Expendables since it just seemed to be a bunch of aging muscle men, although audiences liked it. Here we have some interesting characters of a certain age. Frank Moses is a retired government official of some kind who spends his days tearing up his benefits checks so he can call Sarah Ross at the disbursement office and complain he did not get them. They have developed a nice little phone flirtation. Suddenly a lot of guys with guns show up and destroy his house, but he manages to escape.

He goes to Kansas City and semi-kidnaps Sarah, since he figures she is in danger. Well, she is once he kidnaps her. She’s not just a cute bimbo, but a smart woman who is worried she is not going to have any excitement in her life. Well, she doesn’t have to worry about that. The writers have given Frank and Sarah a nice relationship and some good lines, as in her “And I was hoping you would have hair.” It is not a part of great depth—none of the characters are—but it gives Mary-Louise Parker some nice moments. The same is true of the other characters. Frank begins to put together a team of retired operatives (he was a lot more than just the researcher he claimed to be) and each gets their moments. Yes, Marvin Boggs is a typical John Malkovich weirdo, but Malkovich doesn’t push it. Yes, I agree with some critics that we get to Helen Mirren’s Victoria later in the film than we might like, but who can resist Mirren using heavier artillery than she was allowed on Prime Suspect? The gravitas the actors bring makes it seem less like just another adaptation of a graphic novel, and more like a real movie. Even the bad guys are given some texture, notably the hit man given the job of getting Frank and the others. It turns out he has a family he loves very much. Richard Dreyfuss brings his best Dick Chaney impression over from Oliver Stone’s 2008 W. and it fits right in.

Yes, the plotting is a little sloppy, and maybe they did not need to fire that many rounds of ammunition, but the dry deadpan tone carries us through those excesses. And there is not a teenager in sight, glory be.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Twanging Your Magic Clanger” episode teleplay by Eddie Gorodetsky & Chuck Lorre & Jim Patterson, story by Lee Aronsohn & Dan Foster. “The Crazy Bitch Gazette” episode teleplay by Dan Foster & Eddie Gorodetsky, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes each.)

Two and a Half Men

Old age is creeping up on Charlie: As I mentioned in US#60, it looked as though the first episode(s) of this season were at least conceived when it was not yet clear if Charlie Sheen was going to be back on the show. These two episodes, broadcast immediately before and after his recent adventures in New York, focused on Charlie. In the first, he’s started dating Michelle, a dermatologist who took a growth off his ass. He is horrified to discover she is 47, at least, depending on who is counting, five years older than he is. Well, I can see his surprise. She is played by Liz Vassey, formerly Wendy Sims, one of the lab rats in CSI. Vassey is 38 and does not look older than 32, so in Hollywood terms, she was very brave to take this role. Charlie is bothered by the fact that he is dating an “older woman,” no matter how young she looks. He’s about accepted it when Michelle dumps him, telling him he is still thinking about Chelsea. Before then he’s learned Michelle has a babe-alicious daughter Shauna. We can tell he’s thinking of making out with her, but she tells him she once had sex with an old guy—who was 35. She says, “It was like having sex with my grandfather.” Charlie turns around, knocks on Michelle’s door and says, “Good news, I’m over Chelsea.”

In the next episode, Charlie and Michelle are having a nice dinner at a restaurant when Charlie’s mother Evelyn shows up. And then Alan. Michelle asks them to join her and Charlie. So she gets a first-hand view of his family. Here’s what makes the writing of this episode so good. We know Charlie and his family, so what we see and hear them do seems “natural” to us. But we can also see them from Michelle’s point of view. Charlie and Michelle go back to his house and are about to get it on when Jake knocks on the bedroom door. Charlie says he is not alone, and Jake starts guessing: Chelsea’s back? Mia? The hooker who—Charlie decides to let him have the car keys he asked for. Next morning Michelle meets Berta, who asks Charlie if she should make up his bed or if they are just taking a breather. Michelle seems to be taking all this surprisingly well, but then Rose, Charlie’s stalker, pops up over the railing of the balcony. It is just one crazy person too much for Michelle, and she leaves. Too bad, because Rose tells Charlie that she is getting married to a guy named Manfred Quinn. Alan starts looking for wedding presents, but Charlie is convinced the wedding will not take place. Alan and Charlie go to the church and peek inside and it looks like a wedding. They wander off and we see that except for Rose and the minister, everbody else is a plastic mannequin. We end with Alan and Charlie standing by a truck saying they are happy Rose is marrying good old Manny Quinn. They move and we see a truck labeled “Mannequins” on it. Rose triumphs again.

CSI (2010. “House of Hoarders” episode written by Christopher Barbour. 60 minutes.)

CSI

It’s full employment week for set decorators here at CSI: As I mentioned above, if you are writing screenplays, you are writing for performance. Usually that refers to the actors, or to the directors, as I did above, but it can also refer to the production designers and set decorators. In US#44 and the comments on it, we talked about what the writer of You Only Live Twice (1967) gave production designer Ken Adam to work with. In this episode of CSI, Barbour gave the set decorators a wonderful situation.

Nick and Sarah are called to a house full of junk. I mean really full, as in they can hardly get in the front door. The set folks have provided wonderful mountains of stuff they have to wade through. At which point they find a decaying corpse. Obviously the woman who owns the house. Except she soon turns up alive in one of the other rooms. OK, that’s the set-up, but having established the house full of junk, Barbour and the set decorators then develop it further. The corpse is the woman’s daughter. Ah, only one of the woman’s daughters. Eventually the CSI’s find a relatively clean area of the house where the owner has stashed stuff in nice, neat tupperware baskets. And the baskets are in a certain order. Which of course lead to…well, I’m not going to tell you, but it’s a corker and totally in keeping with what the writer and decorators have set up. You can look for the episode in reruns or on DVD or wherever you watch television these days.

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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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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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

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