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Understanding Screenwriting #76: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, Too Big to Fail, & More

Robert Benton’s graceful and poetic final scene in Places in the Heart does what I think Malick is after even better.

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The Tree of Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: The Tree of Life, Bridesmaids, I Died a Thousand Times, Screaming Eagles, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), Too Big to Fail, but first…

Fan Mail: I really want to thank “Lorraine” for giving us the link in her comments on US#75 to a site that has the best satire I have ever seen on screenplay analysis. Each bit takes on a given film by having a guy’s arm draw a circle on a dry erase board, divide up and explain a given film’s structure at about 300 words per minute. The specific one Lorraine linked us to was for Pirates 4. The guy gets a lot wrong about the movie (the stuff he puts in the first quarter of the film takes a lot less time; the ending of the film is not a closed circle but very open ended, etc), but goes so fast you can hardly tell. It will have you on the floor, even if you take “Hero’s Journey” more seriously than I do.

At least I’m assuming it’s satire…

The Tree of Life (2011. Written by Terrence Malick. 138 minutes)

Pure cinema, like Meek’s Cutoff: Sometimes in my Screenwriting class at Los Angeles City College, I ran a film in segments over the semester, and we discussed the screenplay as we went. Sometimes I did not decide on the film before school started. Once I had a student ask on the first day why he had to learn screenwriting, since he did not want to tell stories, but “create pure cinema, like Hitchcock.” I instantly knew I had to show Rear Window that semester. I did, and the student never uttered the words “pure cinema, like Hitchcock” again. I always found it odd that a director working in the mystery-thriller genre, which depends so much on suspense created by narrative, would claim he was making “pure cinema.” The student believed the term meant making films with less focus on narrative and character. There are other directors who can more legitimately claim they are attempting pure cinema. Terrence Malick is one of them.

As Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have discussed in their two(so far)-part discussion of Malick and The Tree of Life at the House, Malick is part of the site’s DNA. So I should start by giving you some idea of where I stand in general on Malick. I have always had mixed feelings about his films. Badlands (1973) seemed to me mostly a very late addition to the Bonnie and Clyde genre, and I was not sure the girl’s narration added to the film. I would have been more impressed with Days of Heaven (1978) if a) the design of the ranch house was not so clearly a steal from Boris Leven’s gothic mansion in Giant (1956), and b) I could understand anything that was said in the voiceover. On the other hand, the film was beautifully photographed by Néstor Almendros and others, and it was one of the most inventive early uses of Dolby Stereo. You could hear every leaf on every tree rustle in the wind. It was obvious Malick had a great eye and ear for landscape, in the great tradition of Robert Flaherty, Henry King, and David Lean. I went to see The Thin Red Line (1998) with some trepidation, since it was obvious from the reviews that it bore no relationship to the James Jones novel it was based on. The film got off on a bad note for me. In an early scene, the characters are on board what is supposed to be an attack transport. It’s not. It is a restored Liberty ship (a cargo transport) called the Lane Victory, and perfectionist as Malick is supposed to be, it does not occur to him to have some CGI to add in some assault boats. (I often have this problem with “perfectionist” directors who seem to be so sloppy about the obvious stuff; did no one dare tell Kubrick that the font on the street signs in the New York street set built in London for Eyes Wide Shut [1999] simply was wrong?) But then The Thin Red Line began to put me under its spell, and I began to see what others saw in Malick: a poetic look at man and nature. The New World (2005) was a letdown for some of the same reasons The Tree Of Life is. The poetry overpowers the story and characters. The latter two elements are Malick’s weakest areas of filmmaking. Lean managed the combination of the beauty and power of nature and strong stories and characters.

A word here on screenwriting as it applies to Malick’s films. We know from the way he works that he does not sit down, write a script, and shoot it as written. The story, characters, scenes, and structure are constantly in flux. When talking about the screenwriting in The Tree of Life, I am talking not just about whatever written script or scripts Malick was using during production, but the way in which the screenwriting process continues throughout production and especially post-production. The structure of the film, which the written screenplay usually provides, clearly came here in the post-production process. This is not uncommon in documentary films. Frederick Wiseman has said that the editing of his film is “non-rational, that is to say irrational,” as he finds the connections and structure in the editing room. So it is possible to do that, even in fiction films, more often than people who write about screenwriting normally admit.

The opening twenty minutes of the film establishes the O’Brien family, although we do not get their name in the film, and we know they have children, but who and how many we do not know. The main “event” in this section is the news delivered to the family that one of their sons has died, but we have no idea which son. Putting the news of the death at this point in the film (you could recut the film and place it much later, after the main body of the family sequences) gives it an importance that the rest of the film does not support. It is like putting a tuba solo in the first movement of a symphony and then only getting a few notes from the tuba in the final movement. There is nothing in the main family sequences that set us up for the son’s death and what it may do to the family, especially since we learn he died at age 19. We only come back to it in the last fifteen minutes, when we get the “afterlife” sequence, but that is so badly shaped we cannot tell which son we meet there is the one who died.

The opening shot of the film is an abstract shot of a flame, so it is not much of a surprise that twenty minutes into the film we go into an abstract sequence of the evolution of the world. It is a higher-toned version of the “World is Born” sequence from Fantasia (1940), but without the energy or the fun or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to back it up. There are a lot of pretty pictures, but they do not connect, which makes the sequence into more of a Power Point presentation than a sequence in a film. Film takes place in time. It is a temporal as well as a visual medium, and as Ingmar Bergman observed, film may be closer to music than to theater. Part of screenwriting in the editing process is to find the structure that will pull the audience along and make viewers feel they are going somewhere. Enlarging the scope of the film at this point to include all of creation might work, but the connections with religion in the family scenes are limited. The family scenes show religion in a very domesticated way.

After forty minutes we return to the family. I am a couple of years younger than Malick and I grew up in a small town similar to the one in the film. I was looking forward to these sequences, but they turn out to be very generic: the kids throwing rocks, setting off rockets, swimming at the pool, etc. Malick not being very specific about the characters robs these scenes of the texture they should have. Malick is working more on the physical texture of the place, but it’s not enough. The same is true of the family scenes. The kids have very little individuality, except for Little Jack, but not that much for him. Mother is an abstract portrayal of grace, which gives Jessica Chastain, who plays her, very little to do. The Father at least has a couple of sides to him, loving and strict. In writing about Troy (2004) in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I said of Brad Pitt, “Fierceness is not really in his normal range, especially when he is going up against actors like Brian Cox (Agamemnon) and Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus) who can do fierce with one hand tied behind their backs… There seem to be two Brad Pitts. One is a terrific character actor, as seen in Twelve Monkeys (1995). The other is the movie star, who seems bland, as in The Mexican (2001). Unfortunately for Troy, the movie star showed up.” Fortunately Pitt the character actor shows up here and we get enough fierceness from him. Pitt shows us a lot of nuances in the close-ups Malick gives him, unlike Chastain, who doesn’t. When one actor in a film stands out as much as Pitt does here, it’s usually the actor and not the writer and director. Both the actor playing Young Jack and Sean Penn, who plays the older Jack, are stuck without a lot to do. This lack of specificity hurts the end of this segment of the film, where the family is forced to vacate their house. Compare what Malick does, or does not do, with what Nunnally Johnson and John Ford do with Ma Joad when she and her family have to leave their house. Nunnally and Jack are a lot more specific and poetic than Malick is here.

The last fifteen minutes or so of the film is either the afterlife or a dream of the afterlife by the older Jack. For a guy who is supposed to be creative (he’s an architect), he has a very unimaginative view of it. Everybody is on a beach and they all have semi-beatific smiles (not quite like people looking at flying saucers in a Spielberg movie, but close) and they all hug. Again, there is no texture to how these people relate. We think we find out which other brother died, but both of them show up. And they show up in their kid forms, rather than as 19-year-olds. The classic way to handle this sort of scene is the finale of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), but Robert Benton’s graceful and poetic final scene in Places in the Heart (1984) does what I think Malick is after even better. And simpler.

I also have the suspicion from watching the film that Malick may have worked on it for so long that he has eliminated whatever was fresh and vital in the original material. This often happens in the screenplay “development” process in the studios, but it can also happen with individuals working on their own. There are, for example, some family scenes in the middle of the picture that look as though they have been cut to make them seem less like narrative scenes than they may have originally been. The way Malick should have gone is to bring up enough character and story elements to support the other things he wanted to do in the film.

Ah, the Meek’s Cutoff (2010) reference in my snarky subhead. You may remember in US#74 that I mentioned the audience at that film laughed at the end because they felt they had been taken in. Before I saw Tree, I was talking to my wife’s former boss. He had seen the film, hated it, and said there was a similar laugh at the end of Tree. There was not at the screening I attended. Some people hate it, some people love it. I was just disappointed.

Bridesmaids (2011. Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig. 125 minutes)

Bridesmaids

Hollywood is gonna learn the wrong lesson from this one: There has recently been a lot of writing in different places (The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, et al) about the difficulties of making a comedy about women that would do really well at the box office, where raunchy comedies about dudes regularly clean up. This is a historically myopic discussion, as most discussions of this kind are.

Hollywood is always amazed when movies by and for women open “surprisingly well.” Sixteen years ago I wrote a short piece for the Los Angeles Times decrying this and pointing out “women’s” films that had recently opened “surprisingly well.” The editor at the Times called me up after I submitted it and said that since it was not time-sensitive, there would be a little delay on running it. I said OK, just so long as it appeared before Waiting to Exhale (1995) opened. That was met with a baffled reaction on her part. The piece appeared a week before the film opened, and, sure enough, the Times noted the film opened “surprisingly well.” For several years thereafter, women in the industry put “surprisingly well” in at least air quotes when they used the term.

In the case of Bridesmaids, a lot of the discussion has focused on the fact that Judd Apatow has “godfathered” the film. He is the King of Raunchy Comedies, and when the film opened “surprisingly well,” most people in Hollywood assumed it was his touch as the producer that made it a hit. As has been mentioned in some reviews, the scene where the bridesmaids get a run, pardon the expression, of diarrhea during a fitting of gowns was suggested by Apatow. Two things. That scene does not really fit the tone of the rest of the script and in fact bends it out of shape. Secondly, while the picture opened well, it has shown even greater legs, with less decline in box office than any other film this year, including The Hangover II. Apatow’s assistance may have helped it open well, but it is Mumolo & Wiig’s screenplay, as flawed as it is, that will provide a “surprisingly” higher total box gross than anyone expected.

Yes, let’s get down to the script. The script opens with a long scene establishing the relationship of Annie and Lillian, who have been friends since childhood. The scene not only establishes the characters, but the rhythm of the film. It not only takes its time with the characters, but it takes its time with the scenes. This is not always for the best. There is a reason for the cliché that brevity is the soul of wit. Most films of this kind run about 90 to 100 minutes, but this one is 125 minutes, and as with most movies, longer is not necessarily better. There are scenes and sequences that should have been cut, such as the subplot with Annie’s two roommates. This is the first feature screenplay by the two writers, who are used to working in shorter forms. They will learn in the future not to get carried away.

So what we get is a character comedy rather than a gaggy one. In writing about A Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) in US#27, I noted it was a film I smiled at more than laughed. In that case it was because I was charmed by the surrealism of the approach to the material. I smiled more than laughed at Bridesmaids, here because of the characters and their relationships. But the length and pacing cause a problem. Annie, a bit of a flake and not in the cute way movies usually show flaky women, is asked by Lillian to be her maid of honor at her wedding. Annie agrees, but keeps finding herself upstaged by Helen, the rich wife of Lillian’s fiance’s boss. The first of these occasions is when Annie and Helen end up giving dueling toasts at a reception. It’s funny, but goes on longer than it needs to. It also begins to show us Annie’s jealous side. That side comes out again when the bridesmaids are off on a plane for a weekend in Vegas. There is bonding between the bridesmaids, but Annie, seated in coach, keeps trying to sneak into first class, where Helen and Lillian are. The scene is the best in the film, because it successfully manages the mixture of Jane Austen and Blake Edwards the film is aiming for. But then the writers try to top that by having Annie go completely bonkers at the wedding rehearsal, and like the assorted scenes in the sequels to Star Wars (1977) that try to outdo the Cantina scene by having more of everything, we are in the land of overkill. We lose patience with Annie as the film progresses and she becomes less and less sympathetic. So when after the rehearsal, Megan, one of the bridesmaids, reads Annie the riot act, we are way ahead of the movie. We’ve wanted somebody to say that to Annie for almost half an hour. Annie and Lillian eventually make up.

Mumolo & Wiig have given us some well-rounded women characters, and provided great parts for the actresses. Megan is played by the wonderful Mellisa McCarthy (Sookie on The Gilmore Girls), who acts the shit out of the part, literally in the diarrhea scene. Rita (Wendi McClendon-Covey, late of Reno 911) is a married mother of several who hates her kids (when have you heard that in a mainsteam American film?) and tries to explain it all to a bright and perky Becca, who thinks marriage is going to be wonderful. As often happens (it even happens to Jane Austen), the two women writers have not developed the male characters very well. The fiance is almost invisible, and the highway patrolman Annie ends up with is standard issue. The writers also shortchange Helen. To nobody’s surprise, at one point late in the picture she breaks down emotionally and admits she has no friends and tries to buy friendship with money. OK, but the writers don’t go anywhere with that. Helen then continues to throw the most lavish wedding ever for Lillian, but we get no reaction shots of Helen to show us she is now embarrassed by her excess or has simply resorted to her previous default setting. Mumolo & Wiig are ruthless, but not yet Billy Wilder ruthless. I certainly hope they get there.

But I have to tell you, I still smiled a lot.

I Died a Thousand Times (1955. Written by W.R. Burnett, based (uncredited) on his novel High Sierra. 109 minutes)

I Died a Thousand TimesEverybody hated this movie, except for one person: I first saw this in 1955 when it came out and sort of liked it. It is a remake of the classic 1941 movie High Sierra, which I had not seen at that point. In the ‘50s, Hollywood remade a pile of its old movies, I suppose partly for a lack of creativity (then as now), and perhaps maybe to persuade the anti-Communists that the movies could not be subversive if they were based on films that had made lots of money in capitalist America. Most of the remakes suffer in comparison to the originals. I liked High Society (1955) and couldn’t understand why critics thought it was so inferior to its source, The Philadelphia Story (1940). Until I finally saw The Philadelphia Story. In the case of Died, I originally liked the CinemaScope photography of the Southern California desert and its small towns. I have been trying to see the film again, but without much luck. Netflix doesn’t have it. I suggested it to Turner Classic Movies a year ago, without any luck. Until now. TCM ran it a while ago.

If you have ever read any reviews of it, you know the critics hated, hated, hated it. But one reason I wanted to take another look at it is that I discovered there is one person who liked it better than High Sierra. That would be W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel, co-wrote the screenplay for High Sierra, and wrote the screenplay for this version. I’m always interested in what the writer has to say.

The story of High Sierra began when Burnett and a friend when fishing at June Lake and stayed it a cabin, which Burnett, ever the author, figured would be a good hideaway for Roy Earle, a killer and bank robber modeled on John Dillinger. The book was bought by Warner Brothers and assigned to John Huston to script. It was to be for Paul Muni (see US#52 for more on Mr. Muni), but Huston pissed off Muni, so Jack Warner assigned Burnett to work on the script as well. Muni still turned it down, and the studio was thinking of George Raft, but Bogart convinced Raft he was not right for the part (Burnett agreed) and Bogart took it over. The producer was Mark Hellinger, who was a problem for Burnett. One issue was that he insisted everything be explained in the script in detail, which Burnett did not think was necessary. The other was that Hellinger was what Burnett called a “sentimentalist.” Hellinger was not convinced that the crippled girl Velma would turn against Earle after he paid for an operation cured her. Burnett and Huston knew better, but they had to soften the character. (All of this background is from a terrific interview Ken Mate and Pat McGilligan did with Burnett for the 1986 book Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the first of four—so far—of the Backstory books.)

For Died, Willis Goldbeck, the producer, and Burnett saw eye to eye on the film they were making. Burnett cut a lot of the exposition Hellinger had insisted upon, and Velma, who does not get as many sentimental scenes as in the original, turns against Earle in a nice edgy scene. And the picture, at least in its DVD version, runs nine minutes longer than High Sierra. The script is better, but the picture is not as good. One reason is that Raoul Walsh has been replaced as director by Stuart Heisler. Heisler was a journeyman director about whom Nunnually Johnson said, “His main function seemed to be that he kept the actors from going home before 5 o’clock.” Heisler simply does not provide the energy and the drive Walsh did, which slows down the film. Another reason is that the film was shot in the early days of CinemaScope, and we spend a lot more time on the scenic shots of desert than we really need to. As much as I loved them when I was 14.

There is also the matter of casting. Yeah, you try following Bogart in one of his signature roles. Jack Palance is actually very good in the part, and it is one of his better performances, since he gets to show a more human side than he normally does. His moll, played by Ida Lupino in the original, is Shelley Winters, adequate, but not up to Lupino. Burnett was little more hard-edged about his two stars, “The remake is a better picture. Except we had two repulsive people in it—Jack Palance and Shelley Winters… Who gives a damn what happens to Shelley Winters? Or Jack Palance, for that matter?”

Screaming Eagles (1956. Screenplay by David Lang and Robert Presnell,Jr, story by Virginia Kellog. 79 minutes)

Screaming EaglesThe Longest Day, the lost episode: I got really rushed this Memorial Day and June 6th (end of semester at school, preparing to retire, and another small operation for my wife), so this B-picture is the best I could come up with for the occasions. It’s a story that could have become an interesting A-picture, but the script doesn’t do it justice.

The story is by Virginia Kellog, whose writing career was mostly providing stories for films (T-Men in 1947 and White Heat in 1949). It tells of a unit of the 101st Airborne (their nickname provides the film’s title) assigned to drop behind enemy lines on D-Day to take and hold a bridge. Sort of a cross between the Richard Todd and John Wayne sequences in The Longest Day (1962). As with the Wayne sequences, the platoon we follow is dropped in the wrong area and has to work their way towards the bridge. By the time they get there they discover another element of the 101st is already holding the bridge. You could turn this into a nice picture on the confusions of war, something the 101st sequences in The Longest Day come close to, but the script botches it. First of all, we spend an enormous amount of time on two new additions to the unit, one of whom, Pvt. Mason, is a sullen pain in the ass. And he’s supposed to be the main character of the film. Except after the action begins, he does not have that much to do. The first half of the film is the other guys in the unit complaining about Mason, and nearly all of those scenes take place in one setting, the barracks. Then we get a lot of stock footage of battle, and low-budget battle scenes with our ever-diminishing cast.

Thinking about this some more, it occurs to me that perhaps Kellog’s story was the Mason plot and Lang and/or Presnell got into the war stuff. Subject for further research, if anyone cares.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958. Written by Mark Hanna. 65 minutes)

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

You’ve seen the poster: The poster for this film is one that everybody knows: the 50 foot high woman standing over a freeway, holding one car in her hand and reaching for another one. As often with ‘50s B movies, there is no scene like that in the film. This may have been a case where the poster was created before the script was written. That was a common practice at American-International Pictures, but this was released by Allied Artists.

The film does not get shown that much, and you can see why. The idea is terrific, in a ‘50s sort of way, but badly developed. A married woman gets zapped with something from an alien in a space ship, and she grows to the announced height. She uses her height to get revenge on her husband and his slutty girlfriend. But most of that just happens in the last 15 minutes or so, and then gets rushed. Hanna spends way more time than he needs in setting up the love triangle, and then even more time with the spaceship, which looks like a volleyball painted silver. The special effects are less than cheap, even by fifties standards. There is no freeway, and the film is mostly set in the desert. The location is not for dramatic purposes, as in the opening scenes of Them! (1954, see US#15), but so they won’t have to hire any extras. The payoff, when it finally arrives, is not very inventive. The woman knocks down a building and the girlfriend is crushed. The actors mostly overact, although Yvette Vickers, whose body was recently found after she had been dead for some time, gives great slut as the girlfriend. For some teenage boys in 1958, I am sure that was enough.

Too Big to Fail (2011. Screenplay by Peter Gould, based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin. 95 minutes)

Too Big To Fail

Well, no, not really: This is one of those subjects (the chaos on Wall Street in the fall of 2008) that you could probably not get made as a theatrical release. Its director, Curtis Hanson, was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times, “The studios just shy away from dramas. And on the surface, this was about a bunch of bankers sitting around talking.” He’s right, that’s exactly what it is. And because it was for HBO, they could get a lot of great actors to sit around and talk: William Hurt, James Woods, Edward Asner, Kathy Baker, and the list goes on and on.

But there’s talk, and then there’s talk. The talk here is very plot-driven as I am sure it was with the bankers involved. And it may well be the way the people Sorkin interviewed remember they talked. But just because something is true does not make it interesting. There are only a few scenes where the great actors involved are allowed by the dialogue to bring their characters alive. A lot of the big names here could be collecting unemployment insurance for all the real acting they get to do.

We have discussed a number of times how documentaries these days very often give us more interesting characters than fiction films do. Go look at last year’s Inside Job as a companion piece to this film and you will see what I mean. The makers of that film got all kinds of financial big shots to talk about the debacle, and in the process the big shots reveal more about their attitudes than Gould gets here.

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: 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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Awards

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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Awards

2020 Oscar Nominations: Joker, 1917, The Irishman, and OUATIH Lead Field

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning by Issa Rae and John Cho. Todd Phillips’s Joker led the nomination count with 11, followed by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Sam Mendes’s 1917, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood with 10 each, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with six each.

While Joker mostly received attention throughout the awards season for Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance, many pegged Hildur Guðnadóttir’s victory at the Golden Globes for her score as a sign that the film would do well at the Oscars. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) had to make way for Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell) in best supporting actress and Lupita N’yongo (Us) for Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) in best actress. And both Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) and Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes) landed nominations for best actor, pushing Golden Globe-winner Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Robert De Niro (The Irishman), and Christian Bale (Ford v. Ferrari out of the way.

See below for a full list of the nominations.

Best Picture
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Director
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Costume Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Sound Mixing
Ad Astra
Ford v Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Animated Short
Dcera (Daughter)
Hair Love
Kitbull
Memorable
Sister

Best Live-Action Short
Brotherhood
Nefta Footfall Club
The Neighbor’s Window
Saria
A Sister

Best Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Parasite

Best Original Score
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Documentary Feature
American Factory
The Cave
The Edge of Democracy
For Sama
Honeyland

Best Documentary Short Subject
In the Absence
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Life Overtakes Me
St. Louis Superman
Walk, Run, Chacha

Best International Feature Film
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Honeyland (North Macedonia)
Les Misérables (France)
Pain and Glory (Spain)
Parasite (South Korea)

Best Production Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Best Cinematography
The Irishman
Joker
The Lighthouse
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Bombshell
Joker
Judy
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
1917

Best Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Klaus
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
The Two Popes

Best Original Screenplay
Knives Out
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Parasite

Best Original Song
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“I’m Standing with You,” Breakthrough
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen 2
“Stand Up,” Harriet

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Review: VHYes Spoofs Late-Night TV Without Exacting Critiques

VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.

1.5

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VHYes
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s more inspired satire about how television manipulates an audience’s emotions in the original RoboCop’s opening newscast scene than in the entirety of Jack Henry Robbins’s VHYes. Set around Christmas in 1987—coincidentally, the year of the Paul Verhoeven classic’s release—the film opens as adolescent Ralphie (Mason McNulty) has received his first camcorder. Robbins filters everything through Ralphie’s camera, giving the film an entirely home-video aesthetic, and after Ralphie’s father (Jake Head) discovers the device can be used to record live TV, VHYes morphs into a procession of mostly stale sketch-comedy bits that have been taped during Ralphie’s late-night channel surfing.

Throughout, VHYes shuttles from one gag to the next in search of purpose. In one bit, Robbins serves up a parody of The Joy of Painting starring a woman, Joan (Kerri Kenney), whose dry wit and thinly veiled arousal for her work culminates in a painting of her dunking on Dennis Rodman, of which she assures viewers, “There’s moisture. Some of it isn’t sweat.” We also get a spoof of Antiques Roadshow featuring an appraiser (Mark Proksch) who increasingly reveals his lacking aptitude for the position. And on a mock QVC channel, the formerly married hosts bicker as they predominately sell drug paraphernalia disguised as household products.

VHYes is clearly indebted to the gonzo sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but unlike Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Robbins homes in on the oddities of people and things as a means to an end, rather than using them as a jumping-off point for unhinged social commentary. The only segment that approaches a distinct comedic take on its material is Conversations with Todd Plotz, in which the host (Raymond Lee) discusses “tape narcissism” with a cultural philosopher (Mona Lee Wylde) who makes obviously prescient remarks such as, “One day the real world will exist to be filmed.” Though this exchange might outwardly suggest an attempt to critique global technological influence, a la Videodrome, the sketch lacks a punchline, let alone insight, beyond the host donning a goofy expression, further revealing how the film is a parade of empty nostalgia for its own sake.

The film offers a reprieve from its grab bag of sketch comedy with a series of musical interludes hosted by Lou (Charlyne Yi), who uses the occasion to introduce bands to her interested but clueless parents. The best of these features Weyes Blood performing a haunting rendition of her 2016 track “Generation Why.” But lest the music linger for a moment in earnest, Robbins concludes the segment with the ironized, faux-Lynchian imagery of a door, isolated in darkness, opening onto Lou and Weyes Blood doing a slow dance.

The film’s climax returns to reality to find Ralphie and his friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw), obsessed with the documentary Blood Files: Witch of West Covina. The show claims there’s a haunted sorority house on the outskirts of the town where the two live and, predictably, Robbins uses this material to spring the boys out of the house and toward danger, Ralphie’s camcorder footage all the while guiding us through their ghostly discoveries. As in its comedy, the film proves wholly derivative in its horror, borrowing liberally from The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and V/H/S and, in this stretch, without even the good sense to heavily ironize it. For all the outrageousness that could be concocted from its overarching premise, VHYes settles much too comfortably into the well-trodden footsteps of other works.

Cast: Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, Charlyne Yi, Mason McNulty, Rahm Braslaw, Jake Head, Christian Drerup, Mona Lee Wylde, Raymond Lee, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins Director: Jack Henry Robbins Screenwriter: Jack Henry Robbins, Nunzio Randazzo Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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