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Understanding Screenwriting #67: True Grit, The Tourist, & Black Swan

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Understanding Screenwriting #67: True Grit, The Tourist, & Black Swan

Coming Up in This Column: True Grit, The Tourist, Black Swan, but first…

Fan Mail: I’m sorry David, but Ryan’s Daughter is “all that bad.”

True Grit (1969. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. 128 minutes; 2010. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. 110 minutes. Based on the novel by Charles Portis.)

How is this movie different from the other?: Charles Portis’s novel came out in 1968 and everybody, and I mean everybody, knew that the role of “Rooster” Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed marshal dragged by a tough 14 year-old-girl into tracking down her father’s killer, was perfect for John Wayne. Wayne knew it and bid for the film rights. He was outbid by producer Hal Wallis. Wayne called Wallis to complain, and Wallis told him there was only one actor he wanted for the role: Wayne.

The screenplay was assigned to Roberts, whom I wrote about in US#45. She had been blacklisted in the ‘50s, but came back in the ‘60s, and by this time had already written one western for Wallis, Five Card Stud (1968). She was a perfect choice for the script. She had grown up in Colorado and California, loved horses, and loved men. Since the main character of the novel was the girl, Mattie Ross, Roberts’s being a woman helped as well. Roberts agreed with interviewer Tina Daniell that True Grit was probably her “most fully realized screenplay,” at least in part because nobody changed anything. (The interview with Roberts is in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle’s hugely entertaining and informative 1997 book Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist. The material above on Wallis and Wayne is from Bernard F. Dick’s Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars and Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s John Wayne: American [the most thorough biography of Wayne I’ve found]. Additional material is going to be from and Polly Platt’s oral history interview with Henry Hathaway in Henry Hathaway, edited by Rudy Behlmer.)

Roberts’s screenplay begins with Mattie’s father about to go off to Fort Smith to buy ponies for their farm. He is shot and killed there by his drunken farmhand Tom Chaney as he tries to keep Chaney from killing somebody else. I suspect Roberts spends as much time as she does on these scenes because the story is Mattie’s story and Roberts wants to establish her at the farm with her father before Cogburn shows up and Wayne takes over the picture. Roberts also foregoes what must have been an enormous temptation to use the language of the novel as narration. Portis writes the story as an older Mattie’s first person account of what happened, and more than one critic has compared the writing, not unfavorably, to Mark Twain, particularly The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Roberts foregoes narration and lets the story play out on its own, letting Portis’s dialogue carry the literary load.

Mattie “hires” Cogburn to go into the Indian territories to hunt down Chaney. Accompanying them is a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who is on Chaney’s trail as well. La Boeuf, as Roberts writes him, is a young guy who is not particularly impressed with Cogburn, so we have a now standard-issue young cop-old cop relationship. Cogburn is colorful and bombastic, but Roberts has written some nice quieter moments for him as well, including a campfire scene where he tells Mattie about his wife going back to her first husband. Roberts, as well as everybody else on the picture, knew this was a John Wayne movie, and her writing plays to his strengths. That’s not only his image as the great American cowboy, but also his warmth, which had begun to show up in his westerns in the ‘60s. Ethan Edwards was not a warm person. Roberts of course gives Cogburn and Wayne the scene everybody remembers from the film: Cogburn riding down on the Ned Pepper gang, reins in his teeth, firing guns in both hands.

But then Roberts, following the novel, goes on for nearly another twenty minutes as Mattie falls into a cave with snakes, and Rooster has to rescue her, since Chaney has killed La Boeuf. We then get a long ride to civilization to get medical help for Mattie. All of this could have been condensed a lot. Roberts also gives a final scene not in the book. In the novel the story jumps ahead to Rooster’s death many years later, while Roberts ends the film with a scene on Mattie’s farm where she offers Rooster a plot in the family grave. It is shorter and simpler than the ending of the book.

When Daniell asked Roberts why she thought the film turned out so well, Roberts replied, “The chemistry was right. It was a marvelous little novel. The casting was very good. The direction was perfect.” She is right about it being a marvelous novel, but less so about the other elements. The chemistry was adequate at best, and there were two major casting flaws. The minor one was to put country singer Glen Campbell in the role of La Boeuf. Granted Roberts’s writing of the part is not that great, but Campbell simply was not an actor. The major casting flaw was Kim Darby as Mattie. Wallis was originally interested in Mia Farrow, who was 22 but looked younger. She wanted to do it until Robert Mitchum told her what a son of a bitch the director Henry Hathaway was. Wallis settled on Darby, who was 21 and looked only a little bit younger. Mattie is supposed to be 14, and Darby is so unconvincing that Roberts’s script never mentions her age, which takes some edge off the story. Darby and Hathaway did not get along, and Hathaway nailed the problem in his interview with Polly Platt: “Her bag of tricks consisted mostly of being a little cute. All through the film, I had to stop her from acting funny, doing bits of business, and so forth.” Cute may be what Darby was about, but cute is not what Mattie Ross is about, and she puts a big gash in the center of the film.

Other than not getting more out of Darby, Hathaway’s direction is excellent. He knew how to handle Wayne (they had worked together on several films by this time), and he had a feeling for the wonderful grotesque characters Roberts had included from Portis’s novel. Strother Martin has a wonderful scene as Stonehill, the owner of a stable being out hustled by Mattie in a horse trade, and Jeff Corey nails Chaney. Roberts focused on Chaney’s insistence that it’s not his fault all these bad things happen, and Corey runs with it. Hathaway is also perfectly at home with the violence and the blood in the story, within the limits of a family film in 1969. In the dugout scene, you know the fingers are being cut without closeups.

I saw the 1969 version of True Grit the night before I saw the new version, and what struck me about the ’69 version was that it was perfect material for the Woodchipper Brothers, sorry, the Coen Brothers. There is more than enough darkness in the material for the makers of Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as the kind of quirky characters they love. They could have shot Roberts’s script and still had a Coen Brothers movie. And while that is not quite what they did, there are a lot of scenes in the new version very similar to those in the Roberts script.

The new version gets off to a great start by not having a God-awful title song, which the ’69 version did. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, but the Music Branch of the Academy was way behind the times in those days. The Coens’ screenplay starts much faster: we see the dead body of Mattie’s father in the street as a voiceover from the book tells us what we saw in the first fifteen minutes of the ’69 version. The Brothers know that we will learn about Mattie by what she says and does once she gets to Fort Smith. And so she arrives, and the Brothers as directors give her a big, long closeup in the train window. She is Hailee Steinfeld, who is 14, like Mattie, and her face just pops off the screen. She is more expressive in her first two or three shots than Darby is in the entire ’69 film. And she does not have a cute bone in her body, at least as far as she lets us know in this film. She can also read Mattie’s long, complicated lines as fast as the grownups read theirs. If the ’69 version was a star vehicle, this one is more of an ensemble piece.

We get the trial scene where Cogburn testifies and it is a little longer and more detailed than Roberts’s version, but much of the dialogue is the same, as is the scene where Mattie approaches Cogburn about the job. If Roberts provides a few warm moments for Wayne, the Coens provide some darker moments for their Cogburn, Jeff Bridges. If anything, Bridges’s big moments are bigger than Wayne’s (look at the shooting contest between him and La Boeuf), so the quieter moments are more useful and noticeable in his performance. The Brothers do unfortunately play the “first wife” scene on horseback instead of at a campfire, so we do not get as much of an impact from it as we did in the earlier version. We are, however, constantly aware that Bridges—and maybe Cogburn—is acting, whereas Wayne seems to be the character. I generally prefer Wayne’s version, but that may just be because of everything I bring to his performance. Ask somebody in forty years what they think of Bridges’s performance.

The Stonehill scene is very close to the ’69 version. The great character actor here is Dakin Matthews and he is just as good as Strother Martin was. I suspect you could take the Matthews version and cut it in in place of the Martin version, and vice versa and they would work. One of the great improvements in the Coens’ script is the character of La Boeuf, who is much more specifically drawn. (I cannot seem to find my copy of the novel, and it has been forty years since I read it, so I cannot tell how much of the Coens’ version is from the book.) It helps, of course, that they have Matt Damon playing the part. He gets everything there is to get out of the role, although the Coens having him bite his tongue never quite works. On the other hand, the Coens have not really focused the Chaney character the way Roberts did, and Josh Brolin’s performance is similarly unfocused. Other details that seem very Coen-inspired are in the ’69 version, such as the outlaw who talks in animal noises. Their version of the finger-cutting scene is a little bloodier, but well within the limits of the PG-13 rating. The man in the bearskin is, however, not in ’69 version. I have no recollection if he is in the novel or not.

The Coens still go on way too long after the shootout with Ned Pepper and his gang (and I think Hathaway directs the shootout better than the Coens do), but unlike Roberts, they do not kill off La Boeuf. They also add the ending from the book: an older Mattie (with the return of the voiceover narration, which they have wisely dropped everywhere else) going to get Cogburn’s body at a sideshow and meeting an elderly Cole Younger and Frank James. (An historical note here: The Coens, and this may be in the novel, make Cole the polite one, whereas in real life Frank was more of a gentleman.) At this late date in the picture, we do not really need this scene. The film ends with Mattie having buried Cogburn in the family plot, although because the film has a somewhat limited budget, we never see the farm, since we never saw it in the opening scenes.

So which version is “better”? Hard to say. I much prefer Steinfeld to Darby, but Wayne over Bridges. Damon beats out Campbell. Martin and Matthews are a tie, but Corey outscores Brolin. Lucien Ballard’s autumnal cinematography of Colorado in the ’69 version is more expressive than Roger Deakins’s cinematography of New Mexico and Texas in the new version. Hathaway’s direction is more rousing, but the Coens’s is more nuanced. I love Elmer Bernstein in general, but his score for the ’69 version is one of his lesser ones; Carter Burwell’s is better although it leans more than it needs to on “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” As for the screenplays, I’d call it a draw.

The Tourist (2010. Screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, based on the screenplay by Jérôme Salle for the film Anthony Zimmer. 103 minutes.)

The Tourist

Not Hitchcock: The Tourist opened in America to scathing reviews and not as much business as people thought a Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie movie should open to. Hi, I am one of the few people in America to like this film.

I think both the critics and the public assumed that since a) it starred Depp and Jolie, b) was being released in the middle of “Kudos Season,” c) seemed to have some action in it, that this was another imitation Hitchcock: big stars, witty comedy, and given that it is a modern film, a little more action-packed than Hitch might have made it. It is not that, but in many ways a much more interesting film. I once heard Robert Benton talking about his then-latest film Still of the Night (1982). He said he started out trying to avoid imitating Hitchcock, but then he realized “Hitchcock owned the farm.” Hitchcock defined a certain kind of picture, and not just suspense films. If you were working in Hitchcock’s genre, it is very difficult to do things differently. I suppose Benton could have had the femme fatale in Still of the Night be a brunette not a blonde, but…I thought from time to time that Brian De Palma was getting beyond Hitch, but he never quite managed it. In his 1980 film Dressed to Kill, De Palma starts out as though he is going to be dealing with the sex life of an adult woman, not a usual Hitchcock subject, but then he kills her off and the film turns into a bad imitation of Psycho (1960). What we are up to now is a generation of writers and filmmakers who have internalized Hitichcock and can go off down different paths. The guys on The Tourist have made, in all kinds of ways, a non-Hitchcock film. Which is probably what pissed everybody off.

Von Donnersmarck is best known as the writer and director of the brilliant film The Lives of Others (2006). It’s about an East German Stasi surveillance specialist who gets emotionally involved with a playwright and his girlfriend he has been assigned to follow. Well, that sounds sort of Hitchcockian, but von Donnersmarck gets more into the emotions of the characters and the nuances of their behavior than Charles Bennett’s Fat Little English Friend did. What he brings to The Tourist, as both co-writer and director, is a European sensibility that is not as obviously witty as the Master’s, but slyer. The film begins in von Donnersmarck territory: several people are engaged in surveillance of Elise Clifton-Ward. She’s a sleek, glamorous, well, she’s Angelina Jolie at her most mysterious. When she leaves her Paris apartment, one of her watchers asks another in their van if he thinks she is wearing underwear today. And we cut to a shot following Elise down the street. Go on, try to convince me you are not trying to figure out if she is wearing underwear. That’s a lot quicker, a lot subtler, and a lot slyer than Hitchcock looking at voyeurism in Rear Window (1954), and just as involving.

Elise is the mistress of Alexander, who stole a lot of money from a British crook. The crook and several law enforcement organizations are looking for him. She gets a note from Alexander telling her to take the train to Venice, and pick some man on the train who vaguely resembles him. This is obviously to throw everybody off Alexander’s track. She ends up with Frank, a community college teacher from Wisconsin. Lots of running around in Venice follows, with a few dandy plot twists. Very likely because of those twists, the characters of Frank and Elise are not written so that Depp and Jolie need to give big movie star performances. They don’t, but they give great acting performances, and I suspect that if you go back and see the film a second time, knowing what plot twists are coming, you may admire their acting even more. Audiences who were expecting Captain Jack Sparrow and Evelyn Salt were disappointed.

One of the running gags in the film is Frank’s tendency to try to speak Spanish rather than Italian, which gets a nice payoff in a clever little scene with Frank in an Italian police official’s office. Another running element, although it is not funny until the end, is the character identified in the credits as The Englishman, played by Rufus Sewell. We think at various times we know who he is, although our thinking changes over the course of the film. I talked to my daughter after she had seen the film, and her thinking about him and the other characters changed at different points in the picture than mine did, always a nice sign that the filmmakers are mystifying in the way they need to be. We find out the identity of the Englishman at the end in a slight, charming scene, followed by a nice payoff line from Jolie to Depp.

Changing the locale from Nice in the original French film this was based on to Venice does give the film a little larger scope. We get elements of Venice seen in past films, such as Summertime (1955) and Don’t Look Now (1973), which is a little unnerving, which is exactly as it needs to be for the film. Look at the prisoner exchange at night along a dark canal. Yes, the dialogue in the train scenes is not up to Ernest Lehman’s great exchanges between Roger O. Thornhill and Eve Kendall. Here we are encouraged to look at their characters and their reactions to each other, not just to watch Photographs of People Talking, as one famous director once put it.

Black Swan (2010. Screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, story by Andres Heinz. 108 minutes.)

Black Swan

Thank the Lord for Mila Kunis. Amen: Nina is a ballerina at a New York City ballet company. In Andres Heinz’s original screenplay The Understudy, according to information on the IMDb, the setting was the theater world. It was the director Darren Aronofsky who suggested the change to ballet, probably because he hoped people would be less likely to notice the story was All About Eve (1950). Thomas, the director and choreographer of the company, has eased out Beth, the reigning prima ballerina, and is casting a new white swan/black swan for Swan Lake. He picks Nina early in the film. I would say the film falls apart at this point, but it has already fallen apart. Nina is beyond tightly wound. She is obviously mentally disturbed, which is clear from the beginning. Now why should that be a problem for the movie? Because her lack of mental balance is both not convincing and not very interesting.

Yes, we all know artists are crazy. There is a reason Plato did not want them in his Republic. Artists are anarchists and if you are trying to run a country or a company, you want people who see things your way rather than some really odd way. Which is the public value of artists: they let us see the world differently. But artists are crazy because they are creative, and most creative people have masses and masses of ideas. I have never met an artist yet who was not incredibly prolific with his or her ideas. This is why Nina is not convincing. She is a very one-note character, focused on her fears. Yes, artists can be and often are driven by their fears, but that usually expresses itself in a variety of ways. Nina is not interesting because she does not get beyond the surface of her fears. She, and Natalie Portman’s performance of her, becomes repetitive and not compelling to watch. This has to be one of Portman’s worst performances and every moment she is onscreen, you keep wanting the camera to move to something or somebody else.

So why does Thomas pick her? Well, he’s not all that bright either. He explains at one point what he sees in her that he thinks will make her a good white swan, but the only quality he mentions that we see in Portman’s Nina is fear. And the character is so tightly wound I was surprised she could dance at all. Artists need a balance between concentration and relaxation to get into their groove, and Nina is all concentration and no relaxation. So Thomas tries to get her to loosen up so she can play the black swan as well, and this being a movie, he does this by suggesting she have sex. Nina insists she is not a virgin, but I am not buying it, especially since she has a mother who stalks her every step. Given all that build up, when Nina finally makes a breakthrough as the black swan, the moment is almost glossed over.

Thomas may have realized he miscast Nina, since he brings in Lily, a dancer from San Francisco. I assume the writers have her from San Francisco to let us know she is going to be free and easy, unlike Nina. So Eve, sorry, Lily seems to start undercutting Nina, but is she really? One element of Mankiewicz’s script for All About Eve is that there is never a point where he tells us exactly what Eve is up to. When do you know Eve is a bitch? The writers may have been trying the same thing here, but it seems more confusing than in All About Eve, since we are seeing all this through Nina’s mind and we know from before Lily’s arrival that she’s a little funny in the head. So Lily’s behavior seems more a function in the film of Nina’s brain than anything she does in “reality.”

As if all that were not enough, Nina, Thomas, Beth and Erica (Nina’s mom) are, how shall we say, humor impaired. As is the film. No, I am not asking for the wit of All About Eve, but does nearly everybody in this film have to take themselves so bloody seriously? Artists are not only creative, they are also funny, as are, quite frankly, most professionals if you get them talking about their work. None of the four mentioned ever make a joke, and the one or two smiles they crack seem painful to them. Lily is an exception, and I have no idea how much of that is in the script. While the other characters are caught up in their neuroses, Lily is by definition more free form. The casting of Mila Kunis helps enormously. She does not seem to be given any funny lines in the script, but Kunis is alive on the screen in the way nobody else in the picture is. Did Aronofsky encourage this, or did Kunis slip it by him when he wasn’t looking? You would be surprised how often that happens in films. I have written about Kunis before, in US#42 and #47, and it may just be the company she keeps in this film but she steals the whole picture here by being the only person on screen worth watching.

Black Swan has received very mixed reviews, but it is turning into an art-house hit, particularly among younger moviegoers. This surprises me, since this is one of the most un-ironic movies to come down the pike in years. Maybe it is the Recession we are in that makes people take it seriously. I suspect that some of it is that younger people can relate to the Nina-Erica mother-daughter relationship. With movies and their audiences, you just never know for sure what is going to work and why.

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

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: 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.

.5

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

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

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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

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

1.5

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Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Weathering with You
Photo: GKIDS

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

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

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

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

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

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