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Understanding Screenwriting #64: Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Boxing Gym, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #64: Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Boxing Gym, & More

Coming Up in This Column: The Hero’s Journey, Unstoppable, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Wild Target, Four Lions, Boxing Gym, Two and a Half Men, Burn Notice.

Fan Mail: In the comments on US#63, “Juicer243” put an ad in for a site where he says that to “really understand screenwriting” you have to get the site’s take on the Hero’s Journey. No, learning about the mythology of the Hero’s Journey will not teach you a damned thing about screenwriting. It will only teach you what development executives think a movie has to have. The Hero’s Journey pattern of narratives in various cultures began in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is generally considered to be a ripoff of Sir James George Frazier’s epic late 19th-early 20th century study of comparative cultures. Campbell’s book would have been forgotten by now, except that George Lucas, trying to convince people that the first Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) was more than just sci-fi movies for kids, promoted the film as being influenced by Campbell. Campbell, being something of a celebrity whore, bought into that and kept popping up on PBS with Lucas to explain it all for you. The Lucas films a) made more money than God, and b) established the teen-fan boy audience as the audience primarily aimed at by Hollywood. So it is not surprising that Campbell’s ideas, especially as promoted in Christopher Vogler’s 1998 book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, became the standard clichéd structure that Hollywood believes in.

The Hero’s Journey follows a young man as he is called to adventure, resists the call, gets supernatural help, goes through a bunch of trials, is tempted by Woman, wins out in the end, and returns to his world. It is more complicated than that, and you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want to. Needless to say, it is a rather limited view of what a movie can be, especially with its patriarchal, teen-boy fear of women. You may be able, of course, to fit several classic films into the archetype. Just off the top of my head, you can do it with Citizen Kane (1941), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) without breaking too much of a sweat.

On the other hand. Again just off the top of my head, here are some great or at least good classic scripts that do not fit into that paradigm: It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Nothing Sacred (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Brief Encounter (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Gunfighter (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Roman Holiday (1953), Some Like it Hot (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Blow-Up (1966), Chinatown (1974), Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Thelma & Louise (1992).

And here are some more I have written about recently in this column: The Town, Easy A, The Concert, Life During Wartime, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right, Please Give, The Secret in Their Eyes

And there are even more this time around, as you will see below.

Unstoppable (2010. Written by Mark Bomback. 98 minutes)

Unstoppable

Trains: Trains are wonderful cinematic toys. They huff, the puff, they go uphill, they go downhill, they go fast, they go slow, they get into wrecks. The movies have loved trains from the beginning. After all, Porter’s 1903 groundbreaker is not The Great Stagecoach Robbery, but The Great Train Robbery. We have had the building of railroads in The Iron Horse (1923) and Union Pacific (1939). Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend loved trains. When somebody asked him why he did not make movies about airliners, Hitch said people can get off and on trains, but you can’t do that with airliners. We have had a lot of great train wrecks in Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). David Lean’s father worked for a British railroad, so I am sure there is something Oedipal about Lean’s wrecking trains in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia. And John Frankenheimer smashed up more than a few in The Train (1964).

With that buildup you are probably thinking I am going to dump on Unstoppable. Guess again. It is one of the great train movies of all time. Not necessarily a great movie, but definitely a great train movie. You may remember that in US#22 that I liked the action scenes in Race to Witch Mountain (2009), which was co-written by Mark Bomback. I liked his screenplay for Live Free or Die Hard (2007) even more, although it was over the top, but in an entertaining way. This script is even better, more focused and less over the top, but just as action packed.

Structurally the script is nicely thought out. It is based on an incident in 2001 when a train got loose and traveled 60 miles without anyone aboard. In this case the train has several tank cars worth of dangerous chemicals on it. It goes off on its own because an idiot worker inadvertently leaves it in gear in the rail yard. One thing I like about the early scenes is that Bomback captures the reality of people figuring out what has gone wrong, scenes that remind of how well United 93 (2006) handled similar events. The smartest person around is Hooper, the rail yard manager, who begins to figure it all out. Hooper, alas, has to deal with a boss, Galvin, who comes up with an idea to stop the train that does not work out, to put it politely. Galvin also gets a phone conversation with the CEO of the railroad that in one question and three or four lines tells you almost as much about the economic collapse as Inside Job (2010) does. Good writing by Bomback there.

So it is up to Hooper and the working class to once again save the asses of the bosses. From before the train got loose, we have been following two workers on another train. Barnes, the engineer, is the older man, having worked on the railroad for 28 years and recently given notice that he is being let go with only half benefits. The conductor is the younger guy Colson. This is his first time with Barnes, and we get early scenes of Barnes taking Colson’s measure. Yes, we get some backstory on the two, but Bomback parses it out slowly. We finally get the information on both men’s marriage while they are in the cab of their train, trying to get up to seventy miles an hour—in reverse—to catch the runaway train. As Callie Khouri said about writing Thelma & Louise, “You can have people having meaningful conversations screaming down the highway at hundred and twenty miles an hour.” Look at the family details Bomback gives them in this scene. I mentioned in writing about Race to Witch Mountain that there were too many reaction shots, especially since the two kids did not express much. Barnes is Denzel Washington and Colson is Chris Pine, and they both give great movie star performances all the way through the film.

So, yeah, the trains. One is a runaway, one (well, only the engine by this time) is chasing it. Bomback uses a variation of the structure that Keaton used in The General (1927). Keaton’s Johnnie has his train stolen and he chases it in the first half, then gets the train back and is chased by a Union train in the second half. Bomback has Barnes and Colson just doing their job in the first half as Hooper and the others try to solve the problem, and then coming in to stop the train in the second half. By the time they get involved, we know how hard it is going to be. The trains are big and powerful. Kenneth Turan in his review in the Los Angeles Times compared the runaway train to one of the dinos in Jurassic Park (1993) and it may well have been the great sound design that suggested that. I would not be surprised to learn that some of the dino sounds were used as effects on the sound tracks here. Bomback is also lucky in his director. This is the movie Tony Scott was born to direct. As I mentioned in US#28 when writing about his ’09 version of The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Scott loves his stars, and in Bomback’s script the balance between stars and action is even better. Washington has lost the weight he gained for Pelham, and he can run around on the tops of the trains. Scott also avoids, for the most part, digital effects (they are used briefly when the train threatens to tip over). One thing about great train movies is that they don’t use models. Those are real trains on real collapsing bridges in The General and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and these are real trains in real locales here.

Oh, yeah, one other thing for you Hero’s Journey freaks. Hooper is played by Rosario Dawson. She is not a temptress. She is not evil. She is one of the smartest people in the room and pretty much in charge of the rescue. She’s clearly the best man for the job. Welcome to the 21st Century, fan boys.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009. Screenplay by Ulf Ryberg, based on the book by Stieg Larsson. 147 minutes)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Not as good as #1, but better than #2: You may remember from US#47 that I liked the first of the three films in this trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). It moved quickly and introduced us to a fascinating heroine, Lisbeth Salander. The screenwriters had done a great job in condensing the lengthy novel into a reasonable running time, all the while giving us some great characters and as well as showing how the story connected to Swedish history and culture. I had just seen the great The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and I didn’t think Tattoo was quite up to it, since the plot kept us getting as deeply into the characters as Secrets did.

The second film, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), was a letdown. The story sounded like a Law & Order: SVU retread and moved at a snail’s pace. It did not have as interesting a collection of supporting characters as the first film, and the storyline about the man who turned out to be Lisbeth’s father, Zalachenko, did not take us as deeply into the culture as the story in the first film did. The script also made Lisbeth seem almost normal, which is not very interesting.

Hornet’s falls somewhere between the two. Lisbeth is now in the hospital, having been shot and beaten up by her father and her stepbrother, Neiderman. She is charged with several murders stemming from the shootout at the end of Fire. Lisbeth spends the first hour of the film in the hospital and the second hour plus on trial. So we are not going to see her running around like we did in the first film. But the Lisbeth here is not the “normal” girl we saw in Fire. She is in shock, almost catatonic, but we can see in her eyes that her, shall we say, unusual mind is working. Noomi Rapace gives a very different performance here, one of the most minimalist performances I have ever seen. It is the same character, but who is now in another situation, and Rapace’s instincts for how to act that are phenomenal. Her Lisbeth here connects with the one we saw in the first film, but not in any obvious way. Would-be actors should look at the first and the third films and try to figure out how she does that.

Lisbeth’s supporters are gathering information to help her case, as well as keep her alive. Mikael Blomkvist is back in action, as opposed to the other two investigators in Fire. Yes, we do not get that many scenes between him and Lisbeth, which I complained about in Fire, but you get a sense that they are together here even when they are not. That was not true in Fire. Lisbeth gets more scenes with Annika, Blomkvist’s sister, who is representing her. Blomkvist is also getting help from a government commission whose job is to protect the constitution. When they first approach Blomkvist, I was even more suspicious of them than he was. After all, the whole thrust of the three films is that Blomkvist and Lisbeth and their kind are individuals up against the power of the state and its institutions. Blomkvist has a moment of hesitation and then agrees to work with them, which I, not having read the novel, assumed would come to no good end. But they are the good guys, which is a little too conservative, conventional, and, especially, convenient for what has been a radical trilogy.

There are other interesting characters as well, such as the young doctor treating Lisbeth. He’s just a nice guy who wants to help, and is willing to bend the rules a bit to help her. Given all the older guys who nearly all pond scum, having a nice one around is a nice change. Unlike the end of Fire, we do find out what happens to Neiderman. I think he is better used in this film than the previous one. He seemed a conventional thug in that one, and here he is an implacable killing machine, if you see the difference. We even get a sense here that he might be feeling a little lonely without his and Lisbeth’s father. Lisbeth did not kill her father in Fire, but one of his old protectors does early on in the film.

One of the pleasures of the film is watching all the narrative elements from the first two fall into place. There were a lot of loose ends in Fire, but that often happens in the middle film of a trilogy. I mentioned at the end of my comments on Fire that the writer of it, Jonas Frykberg, was going to be back on the third one, but that credit apparently did not stand, and Ulf Ryberg gets the sole credit here. Both Fire and Hornet’s are directed by the same guy, but Hornet’s is a better film and feels better directed. A good script makes a director look better than a bad script does.

Wild Target (2010. Screenplay by Lucinda Coxson, based on the screenplay for Cible émouvante (1993) by Pierre Salvadori. 98 minutes)

Wild Target

Me and Netflix: I think I first came across a reference to this film in the British film magazine Sight & Sound, and somehow I got the impression that it was not being released in theatres, but only on DVD. So I went out to my Netlix Queue and tried to add it. It ended up in that section at the bottom of the page called Saved DVDs, which appears to be films that Netflix knows exists but have not gotten around to adding to their six bazillion films. Shortly thereafter a trailer showed up for it in an actual movie theatre. And then the film appeared in the same movie theatre. So I went to see it.

It is about Victor Maynard, a hitman who—wait a minute. A hitman? I hate movies about hitmen. If you believe American movies and television, most American men work as either hitmen or cops or both. I discourage students in my screenwriting class from writing about hitmen, given the plethora of films featuring them. I ask my students, “How many of you know any actual hitmen?” Usually no hands go up, although one time I had a class in which three or four hands went up. I think they were joking. Most American movies about hitmen are hot, sweaty action movies, with very high body counts and more blood being shed on screen than is good for viewers’ mental or moral health.

Every so often, however, I do find a hitman movie appealing. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) has a great idea: a hitman goes back to his high school reunion, and gets a lot out of it until the final shootout, which gets excessive. You Kill Me (2007) also has a great idea—a hit man goes to Alcoholics Anonymous—but then does not development well. Wild Target also has an interesting idea: Victor ends up trying to protect his target, Rose, from other hitmen who are trying to kill her. She has run a con involving a forged painting on Ferguson, who does not take that lightly. Victor is given the contract, but he ends up killing somebody else who is trying to kill her. OK, you see where this is going. She is attractive, they fall in love, kill the bad guys, and live happily ever after. But Coxson, and presumably Salvadori in his original script, don’t get there in any obvious ways. For example, Victor is very fastidious and even his mother thinks he may be gay. He’s never really thought about it, and when he does, he begins to wonder himself. This leads to a terrific scene between Victor and Tony, a young guy who becomes Victor’s apprentice without realizing what it is that Victor really does. Victor comes into the bathroom while Tony is taking a bath, and we and Victor think he may be about to make a pass at Tony. But they sort of discuss it and Victor realizes he’s not gay after all.

Tony can be rather dense. He is nicely played, by the way, by a young British actor named Rupert Grint, whom I have not seen before, although his IMDb filmography shows he has been in a number of films about a British private school. But the reason Tony does not know Victor’s occupation is that Victor has told him and Rose that he is a private investigator. Look at how long Coxson keeps that pretense up until he finally tells them what he does.

If Tony is rather dense, Rose is always on. We never quite know, and suspect she might not know herself, whether she is acting or not. When she finally falls in love with Victor, it’s funny because we don’t know how much she believes it herself. She appears to be acting for herself. Emily Blunt, who has done good work elsewhere, is really at the top of her game here. She played the title role in the 2009 film The Young Victoria, but as I mentioned US#41, the script did not give her much to play. Coxson’s script gives her a lot to play, with a lot of different colors: smart, messy, playful, seductive, bitchy, etc. and Blunt devours it whole.

Victor is Bill Nighy and he does not play it like the romantic lead, which makes him much more effective. His mother is the great Eileen Atkins and Coxson has written a couple of wonderful scenes for her as well.

The tone is one of deadpan comedy of the kind I admired in Red (2010) in the last column, but without all the excessive explosions of that film. If you liked Red for the same reasons I did, you will probably like Wild Target.

Four Lions (2010. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, & Christopher Morris, with additional writing by Simon Blackwell. 103 minutes by my count, 101 minutes by Sight & Sound, 97 minutes by IMDb)

Four Lions

Well, they haven’t blown up the theater yet: The poster for this English film is rather simple. We have a picture of a crow with something duct taped to his chest. In the large space above him, the word “funny” is repeated several times, each one attributed to a film critic or quote whore. A crow with duct tape is funny? Well, yes, in the context of the film. The story is about five would-be terrorists in Northern England bumbling their way into an attack on the London Marathon. Funny? Yes, definitely. Well, why not? The history of film has seen a lot of dark comedies, even before both Red and Wild Target. Look at Keaton’s The General, which gets one of its biggest laughs from a Union sniper being impaled by a wayward sword. Or Kubrick’s Dr. Stangelove (1964), which gets a few yuks out of nuclear annihilation. All you have to do is have the guts to do it and, more importantly, pay attention to your subject.

Christopher Morris is the director as well as one of the writers and he has been whacking the eccentricities of British public life since the early ‘90s. (The background on and quote from Morris are from Ben Walters’ article on the film in the June 2010 issue of Sight & Sound.) Morris started in radio, then moved to television, where he is best known for a 1997-2001 series called Brass Eye, which parodied British politicians and celebrities. His co-writers here, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell, worked on the 2005-2009 series The Thick of It, which was the basis for the 2009 feature In the Loop. Armstrong and Blackwell were two of the writers on the feature as well. So these guys know their way around comedy, and particularly parody of public utterances. What Morris did was spend three years of research about terrorism, talking to experts, police, imams and many Muslims. He kept finding that, as he said, “Terrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and five-a-side football teams.” And he learned that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed spent two hours looking for a costume that would not make him look fat when he recorded his video.

So Four Lions begins with the first four would-be terrorists we will follow trying to record their final statements. As one of them admits later, it turns out to be mostly bloopers. The recording is a funny scene that gets the film off to a good start, but the writers are not just doing jokes. They are establishing the particular characters of these men. Omar is the leader. He is the smartest and the most organized. He is also married and has a son, both of whom support him killing himself as a martyr. The dynamic between Omar and his wife is so ordinary that it becomes completely unsettling. Waj is the rather dense one of the group, and Faisal is the klutz who comes up with the idea of strapping a bomb to the crow. That ends badly for both of them. Barry is the one white guy in the group who says at one point, “Woman talking back. People playing stringed instruments. It’s the End of Days.” Hassan, who joins the group shortly after the film begins, is younger and so dumb he lets a local girl in to dance in his apartment while all his bomb-making materials are laid out on the table. But she’s so dumb she doesn’t realize what they are.

As the quote from Morris makes clear, he is on to the fact that most terrorists do not join the movement out of religious fervor, but to hang out with the people they get along with. The most religious person in the film is Omar’s brother, who wants nothing to do with the terrorists. He is, of course, the one the police are spying on and whom they pick up. The attack on the Marathon ends badly for all, and because we know the characters, we are a bit saddened by their demise at the same time we are glad they have been taken out.

Four Lions is a real high-wire act that is both funny and moving, and avoids the several hundred ways it could have gone wrong. This may be one reason why the film has so far in this country not been met with protests from Muslim groups. I suspect that moderate Muslims understand the film and also understand that the terrorists are funny in a dark way. Still, one cannot be too careful. In Los Angeles, the film is being run at a theater in the Landmark chain. It is not, however, playing at the chain’s flagship, the Landmark multiplex at the upscale Westside Pavillion. It is playing at a one-screen theater in Westwood Village. So if the theater does get bombed, it will only take out one screen rather than a whole multiplex. So far, so good.

Boxing Gym (2010. Directed and edited by Frederick Wiseman. 91 minutes)

Boxing Gym

Not, alas, one of the Master’s best: I have been a Wiseman fan from the beginning, and I show at least one of his films every semester is my History of Documentary Film class. This one is his most recent, but it does not hold together. Yes, we are in anh institution (Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas), but we don’t get a lot of interesting interaction between the owner and the customers who come to study boxing. The usual Wiseman pattern is to have several sequences that add up over the course of the film. The sequences here don’t. I think the sparring match near the end is supposed to show what all the training leads to. It is just a sparring match, not a real fight, so it does not provide the climax that closing sequences in his film often do (the banquet in Racetrack [1985], the final case in Welfare [1975]). In the best of Wiseman you get great scenes that he ties together, but that does not happen here.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Springtime on a Stick” episode written by Eddie Gorodestky & Jim Patterson. 30 minutes)

Two and a Half Men

Also not at their best: As you know if you have read a lot of these columns, I am a big fan of this show. Generally the writers have a nice mixture of funny and raunchy, sometimes more raunchy than they need, but still funny. This episode is completely off-balance, very raunchy and not very funny. Not being funny makes the raunch seem ever worse.

It gets off to a bad start when Charlie comes in on Jake and a girl from school. Charlie’s drunk, which is just creepy under the circumstances. It is one thing to be that way around Jake, another around a teenaged girl. Alan ends up inviting his and Charlie’s mother Evelyn to dinner for her birthday, but as they are driving her there, she has to stop at a pharmacy to pick up some…lubricant. She meets Charlie’s pharmacist Russell and he gets invited to dinner as well. And he brings a date. And he’s stoned. Usually the writers can come up with some funny stuff about situations like that, but not here.

Burn Notice (2010. “Eyes Open” episode written by Jason Tracey. 60 minutes)

Burn Notice

Michael’s back: So Michael survived the shooting, Barrett is dead, and Michael and the gang are tracking down Barrett’s henchman who picked up the suitcase. It has the “Bible” in it that has information on who burned Michael. Jesse even agrees to help, although he is still sulking over Michael having been the one who burned him. So this season begins.

What was interesting about this episode was that Tracey has given Jeffrey Donovan, who plays Michael, a little more to do in the acting range. Traditionally Michael has smirked a lot as he deals with the bad guys. Donovan gives great smirk, which is why we love him. But in this episode, he is stretched as an actor in a couple of ways. One is that Michael is still recovering from his wounds, so he is not quite as agile physically and even mentally as he normally is. The other is that Michael goes sort of undercover to contact a serial killer and pretend to be his biggest fan. Michael usually does not play a toady, even undercover, but he does here and it’s a nice change of pace for Donovan. Sometimes series writers have give their leads something more to play so they don’t go out of their minds with boredom.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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

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

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

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

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

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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