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Understanding Screenwriting #7: Miracle at St. Anna, The Tall Target, How I Met Your Mother, Ugly Betty, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #7: Miracle at St. Anna, The Tall Target, How I Met Your Mother, Ugly Betty, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Biden-Palin Vice Presidential Debate; Miracle at St. Anna; The Tall Target; How I Met Your Mother; Two and a Half Men; CSI: Miami; Boston Legal; Ugly Betty; ER; Desperate Housewives; You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, but first…

Fan Mail: And a tip of Viggo Mortensen’s hat back to Michael Peterson. I am looking forward to more of his Comics Column.

The Vice Presidential Debate (2008. Written by Joe Biden, Sarah Palin, and others. 90 minutes): While I will occasionally deal with documentaries in this column, as I did with The Order of Myths in US#2, I will generally avoid “reality television,” since the writing, especially the structuring of the shows, is so obvious and klunky. To take one guilty pleasure of mine, you always know that Carson will convince the woman of the week on How to Look Good Naked that she does look good naked.

However, what struck me about last week’s Vice-Presidential Debate was the subtle structure that emerged, which is a tribute not to Gwen Ifill and the debate sponsors, but to its two primary authors Biden and Palin and their anonymous co-writers.

Biden had the most difficult job, since he had to appear both knowledgeable without being overbearing and not condescending to Palin. Palin played right into his hand by asking if she could call him Joe. He agreed, then called her Governor Palin the rest of the evening, so that her “Joe” seemed shallow. It was, as Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live noted, Palin trying to set up her “Say it ain’t so, Joe” zinger, but as a performer she bungled the zinger, sliding it into Reagan’s famous “There you go again,” dulling the impact of both lines.

Palin wrote herself a folksy character, but her playing of it was forced, and in comparison with Biden’s integrated smoothness, she seemed artificial. Her lines became repetitive over the 90 minutes, as did her winks, nose wrinkles, etc. A better director than the McCain prep staff might have helped, but particularly in the last half hour, she had written herself out of the original freshness of the character. As I guessed after the Republican National Convention, she was going to wear out her welcome fairly quickly. (I may not be the only person who realized this: Have you noticed that none of the four major Democrats [Obama, Biden, and both Clintons] have mounted a full-scale assault on Palin? I assume that comes from Obama; it has been a brilliant, gutsy, and counter-intuitive maneuver: let her self-destruct.)

Biden restrained himself, particularly when he was not talking. As I have written before, reaction shots are the lifeblood of film and television, and the main set Biden wrote for himself was to listen to Palin. One of his sons has said that while Biden is noted for being a talker, he is also a listener. By at least appearing to listen to Palin, he appeared to be taking her seriously. It also eventually let him beat the Republicans at their own game, something recent Democratic national candidates have not done. The Republicans have focused on story and emotion rather than issues. Late in the debate, after Biden realized Palin couldn’t get beyond the character she had created for herself, he let his voice slightly break when talking about his family tragedy (and we may eventually find out whether that was planned or not). It made him more human than Palin. The look on Palin’s face was similar to the look on Dan Quayle’s face in 1988 after Lloyd Bentson unloaded his famous “You, sir, are not John Kennedy” line: she knew something had gone wrong, but didn’t know what it was.

On the other hand, remember that Quayle’s boss, George H.W. Bush, won that election.

Miracle at St. Anna (2008. Screenplay by James McBride, based on the novel by James McBride. 160 minutes): I have not read the novel, but James McBride’s screenplay is a mess. There appears to be no overall structure to the material. In the opening scene, one of the characters, Negron, is watching a bit of The Longest Day. Now there is a World War II movie with a structure: the Allies are going to land at Normandy on D-Day, the Germans are going to try to fight them off and lose. Or take The Guns of Navarone: a small band of allies try to blow up the huge German guns on the island of Navarone, meanwhile dealing with the traitor in their midst. Or The Great Escape: a group of Allied soldiers in a German POW camp plan and execute an escape, but are mostly captured.

Of, if you want a World War II film that deals with racism, look at the 2006 French film Days of Glory, which follows a group of Algerians through basic training and into their experiences in the Italian campaign. The scenes in that film are about the racism they face and what they do and do not do about it.

Miracle begins, after The Longest Day clip, with a postal clerk shooting a customer, which certainly grabs our interest. And the cops and a newspaper reporter find a stone bust worth millions in the shooter’s apartment. So far so good. Then we meet an American in Rome who specializes in antiques, but he is so busy making love to his Italian girlfriend that he throws the newspaper with the news of the bust out the window. We never see the American again. The paper lands near an Italian, who seems awestruck by the news, and he runs through Rome, the only shots of Rome in the film, and then we don’t see him again until the very end of the movie. We eventually get to the main flashback about a group of Black American soldiers in Italy, one of whom is carrying the bust with him into battle, which does not sound like good soldiering to me. Besides, we the audience know how much the bust is worth and every time it goes into battle we fear as much for it as the characters, if only because in McBride’s script the characters are so fuzzy they hardly rise to the category of stereotypes. (Look at how Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle, the writers of Days of Glory create and define their characters.)

Four of the soldiers are separated from their unit and get involved with a little boy, a village, partisans, as well as the Germans in the area. But at this point they have no mission: no guns to blow up, no prison break to make, no Normandy to take. They sit around and talk. Needless to say, they talk about racism in the U.S., but these scenes seem added on, not part of the story of the film. Very little that happens to them in the middle section of the film has to do with racism. At one point we get a flashback (yes, within a flashback) to an incident in Louisiana that has nothing to do with the stories the film is about. Meanwhile the scenes with the Germans and the partisans take us out of the soldiers’ story.

We do eventually find out why Negron shot the customer, but it is a long haul to get there. And just to make matters worse, the miracle, if I am reading the film correctly, did not happen at St. Anna, but at another place entirely. At least it is the bridge on the river Kwai, not some other river, that gets blown up in the film of the same name.

The Tall Target(1951. Screenplay by George Worthington Yates and Art Cohn, from a story by George Worthington Yates and Daniel Mainwaring, writing as Geoffrey Homes. 78 minutes): When they talk about those great little B pictures that were better than the A pictures, this is the kind of film they are talking about. It popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies, and if it does again, look at it. It is a great example of how much you can get into a tight little screenplay. And it was written to the sets, as a lot of B pictures were in the studio days. Every set in the picture was part of the MGM back lots (I was a bus driver/tour guide in 1968 when they had a very cheesy tour at the studio, and I saw all the since-destroyed back lot). The one true exterior, late in the picture when someone is thrown off the train, probably was filmed a couple of blocks away from the studio.

The plot is simple: A New York City detective named John Kennedy (yes, get over it) has uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln before he can get inaugurated. He gets on the train taking the assassins south, but then has to figure out who’s who. Look at all the characters Yates and Cohn set up and how they use them. Look at how they use the characters to comment on the politics of the time. All in 78 minutes, half the time of Miracle at St. Anna.

How I Met Your Mother(2008. Episodes “Do I Know You?” and “The Best Burger in New York,” both written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. 30 minutes): I have dealt so far with series pilots and series finales, or half-season finales. Now it’s time for opening episodes of returning series.

A lot of television series are originally set up with a gimmick. My Mother the Car (1965-1966) is the most obvious example: a man’s departed mother talks to him through his car. The gimmick can get tiresome very quickly; again, My Mother the Car. How I Met Your Mother began in 2005 with a doozy of a gimmick: many years in the future, a man is telling his kids how he met their mother, but as we watch his story in flashbacks, we don’t know which of the women is the future mom. The most obvious choice in the first seasons was Robin, but the writers wrote themselves into a corner early on when the older Ted’s narration refers to her as Aunt Robin. And the producers put themselves in another corner by casting the beautiful, charming, and funny Cobie Smulders as Robin. The writers and producers have eventually managed to extract themselves from Ted’s romance with Robin, and last season introduced another serious possible mother in Stella. Ted proposed to her at the end of last season.

So you would think the first episode of this season would deal primarily with her reply. We first see in the teaser several ways she could answer, and then her answer: yes. And then we jump ahead to the end of the summer after they have been dating for a while, skipping over the development of the relationship. Ted’s friend Marshall does raise the question of how well Ted knows her, and some minor fun is derived from him trying to find out more about her, including making her watch his favorite movie, Star Wars, which she has somehow never seen.

The B story of the episode, however, overshadows the A story. Barney, one of Ted’s friends who sleeps with any woman he can have (and as a clever scene shows us, he is able to get at least one at 3 A.M. by text messaging her “?” to which she replies “!”), slept with Robin at the end of last season. Now he realizes he is in love with her and he cannot deal with it. On the advice of Marshall’s wife Lily, Barney tries to behave like a nice guy to Robin, which merely baffles her. He seems to be going back to his bimbo ways, which leads to a wonderful speech to Lily in praise of bimbos, but the writers give us a moment of wistfulness at the end to let us know he is still in love with Robin.

Why spend so much time on Barney? I suspect that Barney is one of those characters whom writers love to write. Robert Ward, a writer on Hill Street Blues, told me no one wanted to write for the upstanding Captain Furillo and everybody wanted to write for the sleazy cop Buntz. And Barney, the original horn dog in love, has to be a wonderful character to write for. We have seen Ted in love. We are only beginning to see Barney in love.

The season’s second episode may well have been one of those written before the writers’ strike last spring and only now produced and shown. I suspect this because there is nothing in the episode about Barney and Robin: no jokes, no references, no longing looks by Barney. The Barney-Robin story made such an impact in the first episode, it was not until the second episode was over and done with that it finally occurred to me that there was no mention of Stella either.

Two and a Half Men (2008. Episode “Taterhead is Our Love Child” written by Mark Roberts & Don Foster & Jim Patterson. 30 minutes): The top-rated network comedy show comes back with an episode that shows its many strengths and one potential future weakness.

Charlie, the swinging bachelor, sees a former girlfriend in a coffee shop with a young boy who looks, dresses and behaves like Charlie. He is convinced the kid is his love child. He goes to his neighborhood pharmacist to ask him about the possible failure of condoms. Now how do you write this scene? First of all, they are smart enough to make him a neighborhood pharmacist, so it is someone Charlie knows. The pharmacist mentions that he gets Charlie a bulk rate on condoms. The pharmacist is surprised Charlie doesn’t know all this information about condoms. And he complains about losing sales to the big box pharmacies, asking Charlie to buy anything: “Maybe the little bastard would like a whiffle ball bat?” Now before you say that of course the pharmacist is funny because he is played by Martin Mull, notice how much character and attitude the writers give Mull to play. All in a scene that runs no longer than three minutes. The series’s writers have over the show’s five seasons created a great gallery of characters for the stars and guest stars to play.

Charlie goes to see the ex-girl friend with a whiffle ball bat for the kid. Did you think the writers had forgotten that detail? She kicks him out, but he eventually comes back, giving her a check for child support and saying one will be sent every month. As he is leaving, another woman comes to the door of the ex’s apartment to pick up the kid, which is hers. The ex has been babysitting him. So how do we know that the other woman is not another one of Charlie’s exes? One simple detail: Charlie is standing at the elevator as she arrives. She does not recognize him, and he does not recognize her. Sometimes, even in a sitcom, you have to make your points quickly and subtly.

The potential problem the show faces is that the “half” in two and a half is more than a half now. Angus T. Jones who plays Jake, the son of Charlie’s brother, started the show in 2003 as a kid. Now he is a teenager and appears to have had a growth spurt over the summer. Which means the kid jokes the writers have used for the last five seasons are not going to work, simply because we will want to see how swinger Charlie deals with Jake’s puberty. There were a couple of efforts last season, but the show cannot ignore it much longer. The problem is how do you write the raunchy stuff the show is known for (see the pharmacist scene above) in dealing with a 14 year old without it seeming creepy. My money is on the writers to find a way.

CSI: Miami(2008. Episode “Resurrection” written by Barry O’Brien. 60 minutes): The cliffhanger for last season was that Horatio Cane, the lead CSI, was shot. This episode opens with a replay of the shooting and then Horatio’s body being zipped up in a body bag. For those of us tired of David Caruso’s mannerisms and who watch the show in spite of him rather than because of him, this might be good news.

No such luck. Horatio has “arranged” his assassination so he can go undercover to … wait a minute. Do CSIs go undercover? One of the continuing problems, particularly with this series in the CSI franchise, is that the CSIs behave more like detectives than CSIs. They are constantly interrogating witnesses and getting involved in street shootouts, as they are in this episode. The other problem, and it is in all the CSI shows, is that the CSIs are constantly explaining to each other things they should already know about their techniques. You can sort of accept that on the mother show, CSI, since the characters are fresher and more original, here it gets less and less acceptable.

The plotting in this episode is incredibly complicated, since O’Brien is tying together and finishing off a large number of plotlines that were percolating through the last season or two. Like many series, this one assumes that audiences remember more details than less-than-devoted viewers may care to.

Boston Legal(2008. Episode “Smoke Signals” written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes): This series left us with no specific cliffhanger, so it was free to start this season with whatever popped into David E. Kelley’s mind. So we get Alan Shore and Denny Crane in Coast Guard uniforms (they joined the Coast Guard Reserve several episodes previously) out in a boat finding a yacht full of babes in bikinis. Shades of CSI: Miami. The only follow-up to this character/comedy scene comes when Denny tells Alan he could not get an erection with the girls. Denny is convinced it comes from what he calls his “Mad Cow” disease, which leads to a line that nobody on television but Denny Crane would say: “My penis has Alzheimer’s.” He eventually “cures” it by getting ahold of a cheerleader costume Shirley Schmidt, one of the firm’s partners and one of Denny’s former lovers, gives him. Now what would you do with Denny and a cheerleader costume? Kelley’s solution: Denny and Alan take different parts and dance with it. We are certainly still in Kelley-land.

The main case in the episode finds Alan facing off against an attorney, Phoebe, with whom he was previously in love. We have come across his former girlfriends before, but not somebody he was in love with. Kelley shows us she means something to Alan long before we get, in several separate scenes, what she meant to him. This in turn leads to a charming scene where Denny asks him if he is still in love with her. Alan says he is not, but simply remembering what it was like to be in love. In Kelley-land there is subtlety as well as over-the-top excess.

Ugly Betty(2008. Episodes “The Manhattan Project” written by Silvio Horta and “Filing for the Enemy” written by Joel Fields. 60 minutes): This show’s cliffhanger was Betty being proposed to by Henry at the same time Gio asked her to go to Italy with him. Both of these plot elements are almost instantly disposed of when we find out she turned them both down and went off touring America by herself.

She comes back with ideas for Mode magazine, but in the meanwhile Willie has take over Mode and sent her boss Daniel to run Player “the third best-selling men’s magazine with no nudity.” Betty goes to work with Daniel and the clods that run Player. So what Horta, the showrunner, has done is split the focus of the show, and not in a good way. We now have to follow the machinations at Mode, which do not yet at least seriously involve Betty; watch Betty find her way at Player, where there do not yet appear to be characters as interesting as there were and still are at Mode; and deal with Betty moving into an apartment in Manhattan. The latter storyline comes from the move of the production from Los Angeles to New York, which Horta rubs in LA’s face by having scene after scene of Betty and the cast on the streets of New York. Does he really intend Ugly Betty to become another Law & Order franchise?

The second episode manages to get both Betty and Daniel back at Mode, but not without a lot of pushing and shoving. All of which leads to Marc, the gay assistant, saying to Betty, “Well, here we are, as if nothing’s changed.” We are, however, still on location in New York, and still dealing with several separate plot lines.

ER (2008. Episode “Life After Death” written by Joe Sachs. 60 minutes): The cliffhanger that this show left us with at the end of last season was an ambulance explosion in which Abby and Pratt may have been killed. We are relieved in the teaser to see they both have survived, although with injuries. But this is the beginning of the 15th and final season and nobody is safe. Pratt has complications that get more complicated and he dies, complete with a farewell party at the local bar. It is grim, but it is setting the stage for the final season.

Because the focus is on Pratt’s condition, there are fewer guest stars than usual as we pay more attention to the recurring cast. We want to see how they react to and deal with Pratt’s death. It also helps in a subtle way to remember who is who and how they are all related.

Desperate Housewives(2008. Episodes “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” written by Marc Cherry and “We’re So Happy You’re So Happy” written by Alexandra Cunningham. 60 minutes): Cherry made a HUGE leap in this show in the last season finale by suddenly jumping ahead five years. The writing problem he created for himself for the first episode of this season was, how shall we say this, HUGE. What he needed to do in the season opener was 1) show how the main characters and their situations had changed while at the same time reassuring audiences that 2) the particular delicate balance of snarky humor and over-the-top melodrama is still intact. Talk about degree of difficulty.

We get quick scenes that update us. Susan is carrying on with a guy we do not know (after a car crash that suggests, wrongly, that Mike is dead; he shows up again at the end of the episode). Bree is now a celebrity cook using Katherine’s recipes, which Katherine is not happy about. Lynette’s twin boys seem to have aged more than five years and are full-fledged juvenile delinquents. Gaby has become the mother of an overweight daughter and let herself go to seed (one side note of this: Eva Longoria Parker is so deglamorized now that audiences may realize she is a wickedly funny comedienne and not just one of the most physically luscious women on television). Edie has come back to town with a new husband, Dave. And that’s just the first act.

What appears to be the one development that will be the overarching storyline of the season is Dave. We see early that he is determined to live on Wisteria Lane. He seems to control Edie, much to the amazement of the other Housewives. And in the final scene we learn he was in a institution. He tells his shrink that he is no danger to himself and “As for the others, there’s only one person who should be worried.” So Cherry has solved one cliffhanger and set up another one. I’ll give him a 9.5 out of 10, but that’s only because hormonally I miss the original Gaby.

For the second episode, I’d lower the grade. The Dave überplot is moving along nicely as he kidnaps Mrs. McCluskey’s cat to get her to apologize to Edie, but the individual stories are less interesting. Lynette pretends to be a teen girl on-line to talk to her son, but the son falls for the girl. The outcome is flat and obvious. And Gaby is turning into a shrill. One of the joys of Gaby was Longoria Parker’s ability to change attitude at least twice and sometimes three times in a single line. Now her lines are one-note.

You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story(2008. Written by Richard Schickel. 300 minutes): Schickel’s history of the studio is fun, particularly in the first couple of hours, but the last hour, about the contemporary Warner Brothers, is so relentlessly self-satisfied as both stars and executives praise each other for their boldness and integrity.

The series is not deep, but at least there are a few writers mentioned. Darryl Zanuck, later a producer and head of 20th Century-Fox, started by writing Rin Tin Tin stories in the twenties. We do get a couple of smidgens of interviews with Julius J. Epstein and Howard Koch, two of the writers on Casablanca, although the Epstein interview does not get his well-known disdain for all the fawning over the film, which he thought was just another Warner Brothers melodrama. There are a couple of good moments with Frank Pierson on Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon. Robert Towne is interviewed about Bonnie and Clyde, although as he has admitted elsewhere, he made relatively minor changes to the original Robert Benton and David Newman script.

I suppose we should be thankful for small favors, but would it have killed Schickel to mention Casey Robinson? Captain Blood, It’s Love I’m After, Dark Victory, Kings Row, Now, Voyager and the Paris flashbacks in Casablanca. Yeah, that Casey Robinson.

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: Animated Short

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

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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

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

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

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

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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

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

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Awards

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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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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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

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

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

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

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

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

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

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Awards

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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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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