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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ‘60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ‘40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Lady Mary has been engaged to the press lord Sir Richard. He has threatened to print all the lurid details of the death of the Turkish diplomat from season one if she tries to break the engagement. But she has finally told Matthew about the death of the Turkish diplomat in her bed, and being slightly more modern than most characters on the series, he accepts it. That’s a pleasant surprise for Mary. So she tells Sir Richard that she is breaking their engagement. He is not happy about it, since he has spent a lot of time and money on her, buying a stately home near Downton Abbey and everything. Well, you can see why he is pissed. And this is part of what makes Fellowes’s writing so good. Sir Richard may be a skunk (think Rupert, or better, James Murdoch), but he is not without his feelings. She sort of really loves Mary, well, in addition to wanting to own her. And he is perfectly willing to take her on even though he knows (he’s not stupid) that she loves Matt. So, yeah, he’s pissed. And Matt makes it worse by walking into the room. And Sir Richard tells him that Lavinia knew Matt was not in love with her. OK, back up a minute. Lavinia was the woman Matt was engaged to when it did not work out with Mary in season one. She was a sweet young thing, but in over her head with these people. You just knew when the logline for Episode 6 said that “Spanish flu infects Cora [the lady of the house], Lavinia, and Mr. Carson [the head butler]” that Lavinia was not long for this world. When she was in a fevered state, she saw Mary and Matt dancing in the hallway and kissing, so it is likely she told Sir Richard (or is he just being a shit and guessing?). Lavinia was then able to die a wonderfully tragic death. Again, Fellowes giving as much detail to a relatively minor character as to the major ones.

So Matt and Sir Richard get into a fight. How plebian! And Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of the house, orders Sir Richard to leave. Yes, Robert finally knows about the Turkish diplomat (it is way into this second season that he learns) and will take his chances with whatever gets printed. Sir Richard tries to be as polite as possible, the kind of turns of character that Fellowes is great at, and says to the Dowager, “I doubt we shall see each other again.” Class. And you will remember that the Dowager is Dame Maggie Smith. So what line does Fellowes give her? “Do you promise?” Like every other line Fellowes has given her, it is a perfect Dame Maggie line. But in Season 2 he has deepened the Dowager. She is no longer just a silly old lady, but one who sees better than some of the younger people the changes that are coming. Since she has been through a lot of changes in her life, she is better prepared to roll with the punches. So Fellowes is developing her rather than just falling easily into a bunch of great Dame Maggie lines.

Bates, Robert’s valet, has been accused of the murder of Mrs. Bates. There has been a trial and there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. And he is sentenced to death. Since testimony from Robert and others in the household have helped build the circumstantial case against him, Robert is determined at least at first to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. While he is working on that, Anna, Bates’s true love, is telling Mary that if Mary has to go to live with her maternal grandmother in the United States until the scandals blow over Anna will go along with her if she likes. Bates and Anna now have a nice scene in which he tells her that she has to live her own life, make new friends. Fellowes tends to make the lower classes just as dignified and noble as the upper crust. But Bates’s sentence is commuted, so does Anna stay at Downton Abbey as Robert tries to get him completely exonerated?

When have you ever seen a Servants’ Ball? It is a ball put on by the servants in which the upstairs folks dance with the downstairs folks. And Anna, now encouraged by Bates, notices that the maid to Lady Rosamund, the Dowager’s daughter, is sneaking upstairs with Lord Hepworth, who is trying to marry Rosamund. (There was a great, earlier scene where the Dowager, who had a fling many years ago with Hepworth’s father, nails his ambitions to the floor. See what I mean about Fellowes deepening her? Anna, the loyal maid, tells (off-screen) Mary, and Anna takes Mary and Rosamund to the room, opens the door, and lets Rosamund see what’s up. Now Anna tells the family she will be staying on. That’s an interesting touch on Fellowes’s part: showing us her decision after the Rosamund scene. It makes clear she understands where her loyalties lie. Especially if Robert can get Bates’s sentence dismissed.

The Bates-Anna love story is only one of two great love stories that Fellowes have given us. The second one is between Mary and Matt. They were obviously attracted to each other in season one, but it was a thorny attraction at best. For most of Season 2 they have been engaged to Lavinia and Sir Richard. Which means we have a lot of scenes (too many for a lot of viewers) of them almost connecting but not quite. Even I, who love Downton Abbey, wanted to slap these two idiots upside the head on more than one occasion. One of those is one of Fellowes’s best moments. In Episode 3 Matt and William, the downstairs guy, have gone off to World War I and have been reported missing. Downton Abbey has been turned into a convalescent center for recuperating soldiers. The family is dealing with this in a variety of ways. One afternoon Mary is singing “If You Were the Only Girl” to the recovering soldiers, accompanied on the piano by her sister Edith. The song is sentimental, especially to soldiers who may or may not go back to find their women waiting for them. The soldiers join in singing. This is an example of Fellowes’s ability to write multiple character scenes. We see the reactions of Mary, Edith, and the soldiers.

And then Matt and William walk in the door. That’s the most heartstopping moment I’ve seen since Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars says to Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, “My heart is and always will be yours.” At which point in Sense they get married and live happily ever after. But you notice this is Episode 3 of 7 episodes of Downton Abbey, so Matt and Mary stare longingly at each other rather than running off to one of the many rooms in Downton Abbey and doing the nasty.

So finally, at the end of Episode 7 Matt and Mary are outside the house, and it is naturally, snowing. Lavinia’s dead, Sir Richard is gone, the war is over, Matt can walk again and presumably do other useful things with the lower half of his body. So he proposes, and Mary, being the finicky person she is, insists that he kneel down and do it properly. Which he does. So they are finally, FINALLY, engaged.

But they are not married yet. Will they manage to screw up that? And what happens when Sir Richard prints all the lurid details? Will Mary have to go to visit her grandmother in America? Well, we already know that Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play that grandmother in Season 3, so we will see her either in America, or even more deliciously, trading zingers with Dame Maggie at Downton Abbey. And can Robert get Bates out of the hoosegow so he and Anna can have the happy life they deserve? You’ll notice that Fellowes has made the complications in the two love stories very different. For Matt and Mary the problems are internal; for Bates and Anna they are external.

A couple of other comments on Fellowes. He is a whiz at figuring out what to leave off-camera. A lot of scenes where people explain what’s happened to other people who do not need to see, since we know what they are talking about. Cora explaining to Robert about the Turkish diplomat, or Mary telling Matt about the same subject. Fellowes understands when to come into the latter half of the scene so we can tell from the characters’ reactions and comments what has been said.

Another thing: Fellowes, a Brit, has an American sense of pacing, which was one of the reasons I had trouble doing notes on season one. In the early ‘50s, American television writer Sy Salkowitz went over to England to work on The Errol Flynn Show, an anthology series. He discovered the English writers wrote slower-paced scenes, so he condensed scenes, and added two or three scenes in each episode, which made the episodes at least seem to move quicker. Downton Abbey goes at a very American pace.

Smash (2012. Various writers. Each episode 60 minutes.)

Smash

It’s showtime, folks: This show is one of the Great Ideas that may turn out not to be all that great. We are going to follow the creation of a Broadway musical from the original idea through its development, workshop productions, all the way to its Broadway premiere. That is, if the series runs long enough. It has now been renewed for next year, but without Theresa Rebeck, its creator, as showrunner.

Julia and Tom are songwriters with a Broadway hit or two behind them. One day they are talking to Tom’s assistant Ellis, who suggests a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They don’t like the idea at first, but doodle up a song, which they have Ivy, a woman in one of their shows, do a demo of. Which Ellis sends to his mom, who puts it out on the Internet, where it goes viral. OK, stranger things have happened, but as I was watching the first episodes of the series I was also reading Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, complete with his observations, called Look, I Made a Hat. Sondheim includes comments on the development of his shows, and quite frankly, Sondheim’s versions are more convincing as well as more entertaining.

The video comes to the attention of Eileen, a theatrical producer who is divorcing her husband, and she is looking for a show she can produce on her own. So she gloms onto the Marilyn idea, and wants to do a workshop right away. But, but, there is only one song. Tom and Julia write a few more, but I had no idea from the first three episodes if Julia, the lyricist, is also writing a book for the show. There was no mention at all of a book for the show, unless I completely missed it. Would the creators even think about a workshop with only a couple of songs and no book? In later episodes it does become clear Julia is the one writing the book. Eileen hires a big name director, Derek, to do the workshop. And they immediately start casting. Huh? The creators have not even decided what their take is on Marilyn yet. Which leads them to keep calling back two completely different actors for Marilyn. One is Ivy, a lush blonde who would be great as the older Marilyn, and the other is Karen, a newbie, who would be great as the younger Marilyn. In fairness to Theresa Rebeck, who is also a playwright and television writer, in episode two, “The Callback,” she has Derek, Tom, Julia, and Eileen discuss these differences, but not in terms of what their view of what the show is all about.

In the third episode, “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” Rebeck does a little backtracking and in the writing makes it clear that the creators of the musical are only preparing for a workshop. This may have been in reaction to all the excessive hype NBC gave the show, which emphasized it was about the creation of a BROADWAY MUSICAL. Which suggests another problem the show is going to have as it goes along. As the songwriters come up with the songs, we are going to get awfully tired of hearing the ones that stay in the show. Rebeck has so far been rather ingenious about making sure we don’t hear what we have too much, and she gives us scenes of both Ivy and Karen singing other songs. And in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” we get a song written for the show that we had better not hear again. Ever. It is something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Marilyn and Joe sing about how they want an ordinary life. Yeah, right. But Rebeck doesn’t give us everybody deciding to drop the song.

Here is an odd thing that happens occasionally in television writing, although I can’t off the top of my head think of another example. Rebeck wrote the first three episodes. Playwright David Marshall Grant wrote the fourth, “The Cost of Art,” which was better than the first three, written by Rebeck, the creator of the show. We finally get a mention of the book, which Derek says is “still somewhat in flux.” So I suppose that is why the rehearsals seem to be more about the musical numbers than the book scenes. Ivy is bothered that nobody told her Karen is going to be in the ensemble and diva’s her out of the way in rehearsals. At one point Karen is sitting in the hall of rehearsal studio and one of the ensemble, whom we have heard being catty about her, listens to her complain and decides to help her. Three of the ensemble take Karen out for an “intervention,” getting her new clothes, but more entertainingly, teach her how to come to rehearsal (in regular clothes with your hair up) and change in the bathroom (to rehearsal clothes, and putting your hair in a ponytail). Now that feels like something written from experience. As does the three teaching Karen how to blend into the ensemble.

Eileen is trying to raise money by selling her (very nice) Degas sketch, but no dealer will touch it, since her ex-husband was the one who bought it. Derek is giving a party for Lyle West, a now-famous pop star Derek says he discovers. And Tom later says he discovered. So we think Eileen is going to hit him up for an investment, but where is where Grant is sharp. She offers to “rent” him the Degas for the startup money. Now that’s a nice twist.

The fifth episode, “Let’s Be Bad,” is written by Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky is back to being sloppy, since it is mostly about all the characters having sex. That does lead to my favorite scene in the series so far. Tom, the lyricist, has gone out in “The Cost of Art,” with John, a lawyer. Tom and John’s mothers set up the blind date. Eeew, you know what that must be like. But John’s gorgeous and he and Tom hit the sack in this next episode. The great scene is the post-coital one, which starts out with them talking about how great the sex was, but then they quickly admit it was horrible, the worst sex they’ve ever had. You don’t see that in many American films and television shows.

I do have a problem with the writing and casting of the male characters. (On the female side Katharin McPhee and Megan Hilty are great as Karen and Ivy, respectively, and Anjelica Huston is fun to watch as Eileen.) The male characters are all played by good-looking, thin, guys with dark hair, so it is a bit hard to sort them out. As befitting a show about Broadway, several of the male characters are gay, but the straight male characters are deeply flawed. Derek screws every woman in sight and Julia’s husband is not very supportive. Michael, the actor they cast as Joe DiMaggio, had a fling before with Julia and starts up again, even though they are both married. Ellis has been cast and directed to be gay, but in “Enter Mr. DiMaggio,” we find out that he’s sleeping with one of his female roommates. It’s obvious his heterosexual side is the one that causes him to be not a nice person. When Lamar Trotti wrote the screenplay based on Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946), he told fellow Fox writer Philip Dunne that the story was “Basically… an anti-heterosexual picture.” There is an element of that here. As a straight male, I ought to object, but after all those years of gay psychotic and sociopathic characters (e.g., Quarles on this season’s Justified), it seems only fair that we now get the reverse. And if it gives us great scenes like the one between Tom and John, I am all for it.

There are pleasures to be had from the show, and I have not given up on it yet. The musical numbers, which shift in the cutting from rehearsals to fully staged, are entertaining, and the cutting of the final few moments of the “Pilot” episode, in which the characters all come together for the callback sequence is nicely done. The show was not dead on arrival, but like the theater always says about itself, it is ailing.

Luck (2012. “Pilot,” written by David Milch. 60 minutes.)

Luck

Horsies, some of them now deceased, and gamblers: David Milch is one of the biggest and best television writers around, with credits that include Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and Deadwood, just to name a few. His co-creator of this series is Michael Mann, who before he became a Great Director, was a pretty good television writer himself. See my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing for details. So with HBO doing its usual overhyping, at least some attention had to be paid.

The pilot introduces to a lot of characters, all of them associated with horse racing and particularly the track at Santa Anita. The pilot starts out slow, but given the talent in front of and behind the camera, you know there is going to be more development. Whether you stick around for it depends entirely on how interested you are in the world of horseracing. The community seems pretty much hermetically sealed, with very little of real life intruding on it. I admire Milch for creating this world, but I don’t especially want to live in it. The world does give Mann an opportunity to have a lot of great shots of the horses, who are more expressive than those in War Horse (2011; see US#91). So this series appears to have been for guys who like gambling and 11-year-old girls who love their horsies.

I turned out not to be the only one who did not want to live an hour a week in the world of racetracks and gamblers. I was reminded of a film a studio made many years ago about bowling. The studio assumed that bowlers, of which there are millions in this country, would turn out for the movie. They didn’t. They preferred to bowl. I am sure gamblers preferred to gamble. There were no statistics on 11-year-old girls watching, but if they were, they, and everybody else, were turned off by the news that a total of three horses died during production. HBO canceled the series while still in its first season, a combination of bad ratings and dead horsies.

CSI (2012. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Goodbye Catherine, hello Julie: The buildup to Marg Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows leaving the show took several episodes, involving an old friend of her, Laura Gabriel, who was married to a nasty millionaire who ran a security service. All this involved Catherine with the F.B.I., especially agent McQuade. So when the case seems to be winding down in “Mrs. Willows Regrets” (teleplay by Christopher Barbour & Don McGill, story by Christopher Barbour), we are not surprised that Russell finds a letter of resignation from her in his email. Meanwhile she has been shot at and Russell rescues her. In the following episode, “Willows in the Wind” (written by Christopher Barbour & Richard Catalani, story by Carol Mendelson & Don McGill), Catherine discovers that Mark Gabriel is not the villain they thought he was, but the subject of an attempted assassination by Laura and McQuade, whom everybody thought was dead. That would push anybody to resign, but does not explain why she is taking a job with the F.B.I.. Before she goes, we do get a nice scene that finally explains in detail how she went from being a pole dancer in a club to a CSI. Her life as a stripper was alluded to in the early seasons, then pretty much dropped until now, and for good reason. It seemed like one of those ideas designed to appeal to the male executives but, at least during the run of the show, really was not particularly useful to the writers. Catherine’s farewell scene to the CSI crew really sounds more like Helgenberger’s farewell to the cast and crew of the show, and then is topped by a very anticlimactic scene with her and Morgan Brody, the youngest of the CSIs.

Two episodes later we are introduced to Julie Finlay, or “Finn,” in “Seeing Red” (written by Christopher Barbour & Tom Mularz). She is an expert in blood splatter. She also worked with Russell before, and their backstory gets laid out over the next several episodes. He fired her once, she insists he not call her “Jules,” and he insists she not call him Diebenkorn, which is what his initials D.B. stand for. She helps solve this case, then agrees to come to work for the crime lab full-time. She is a little younger and livelier than Catherine was, which may fit better with Ted Danson’s Russell.

Some Short Takes in Late Winter-Early Spring 2012 Television

Justified

I was intending to write a bunch about the new season of Justified, but Luke de Smet has been doing such a knockout job on his episode summaries and commentaries that I don’t have a lot to add. What I like is that he has been dealing with some of the writing problems and solutions the show is dealing with. In his discussion of episode one, he brings up the difficulty the writers must have had in trying to follow the spectacular life and death of Mags Bennett, an issue he deals with again in his comments on episode four. I am not at all sure they have managed it, but it may have been impossible. I also liked the way Luke dealt with the introduction of Limehouse in episode four, as well as his discussion of race in the same episode. Luke is also good on how this set of story arcs is getting us into Raylan’s feelings about his native habitat. He does not specifically lay all that on the writers, but they’re the ones who put it in the show. This show, by the way, escaped the curse of Smash: from the very beginning, all the writers are on the same page as to what show they are writing. Well, it helps if you have Elmore Leonard as your inspiration.

How I Met Your Mother still has not introduced to the mother. The creators of the show have been saying all along they had a plan for the whole series. But at a television critics meetings in Los Angeles, one of the creators of the show actually admitted they had made a huge mistake early on by not making Robin the mother. She and Ted had terrific chemistry, as did the two actors, Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor. But in the older Ted’s narration, he kept referring to her as the kids’ “Aunt Robin.” In “The Drunk Train” (written by Craig Gerard & Matthew Zinman), Robin’s new boyfriend Kevin proposes, but when Robin tells him she not only cannot have children, but does not want any, he passes. She tells the same thing to Ted, and he says he loves her. Well, that could end the show right there, but in the following episode, “No Pressure” (written by George Sloan), Sloan has to write them out of that problem, so we spend the whole episode waiting around for Robin’s reply to Ted’s declaration of love. Eventually she says she does not love him. God, they are worse that Matt and Lady Mary, but unlike Downton Abbey, this show has already foreclosed on the possibility of them getting together. Dumb mistake.

White Collar has not has as lively a season as it’s previous one. We have spent most of the season waiting around to find out Neal’s sentence is going to be commuted. Other than that, there has been no big arc to follow. The individual episodes are all right, but not up to their usual standard.

30 Rock has been going through a bad patch. It seems to have lost its zing. Take the “Leap Day” episode, written by Luke Del Tredici. It was all about a fictional holiday, the sort of thing any second-rate sitcom would do. The same was true of the “St. Patrick’s Day” episode written by Colleen McGuiness. There were virtually none of the usual 30 Rock connections with the real world that make the show sparkle at its best. “Kidnapped by Danger” brought back some of the life. Of course it helped that it was written by Tina Fey her ownself.

Desperate Housewives, coming up to its series finale, has also lost its zing. It plays more like a melodrama than a comedy-drama. In “She Needs Me” (written by Jason Ganzel) we get several scenes that would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera. “Women and Death” (written by Annie Weisman), which dealt with the aftermath of Mike’s death, was all soap opera. And worse, both episodes are sentimental, which is not a term anybody has ever used about Desperate Housewives. Maybe showrunner Marc Cherry was too busy with the lawsuit Nicollette Sheridan filed against him to mind the store properly.

GCB would seem to be intended to replace Desperate Housewives, but I have my doubts. It is based on the book Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gitlin and developed by Robert Harling, who wrote the play and screenplay for Steel Magnolias (1989). That genealogy pretty much tells you what to expect: Southern women being bitchy to each other. In this case they all live in Dallas, so there are a lot of Texas zingers as well. The “Pilot,” as many pilots are, is a little extra stuffed setting up the situation. Amanda was the queen bitch when she was in high school. She married a guy who made millions, but not legally. He is driving away with his ill-gotten gains. His mistress, Amanda’s best friend, not ever have read The World According to Garp on the safety hazards of doing this, is going down on him while he is driving. An accident ensues and all the lovely money they had with them floats away on the highway. That was a nice shot, by the way. So Amanda, broke, goes back to Dallas and even has to move into his mother’s mansion with her two teenaged kids. The women Amanda terrorized in high school are out to get revenge. Now whom do you root for? Amanda seems chastened by all that has happened to her, but the other women have a point as well. The writing in the pilot was very cartoon-like, which may not wear well over the series. In the second episode “Hell Hath No Fury” (also written by Harling), it is clear this is going to be a one-joke series: fundamentalist Christians do not behave well. We get it, now move on. There does not yet appear to be an at least semi-serious counterpoint, as there often was on Desperate Housewives. There is also a very odd casting problem. Carlene, the new queen bitch among the women, is played by Kristin Chenowith. That would appear to be perfect casting, but it may be too perfect. With her almost cartoon-like face and voice, and with a wig and outrageous clothes added, she may just be too much. Write for performance, as I always say, but Harling and his writers need to develop more for Chenowith to do than just the obvious.

Fairly Legal is back. You may remember in US#70, I almost did not watch the new show last winter called because I kept coming across the ads that showed its star, Sarah Shahi, with her cute little finger in her cute little mouth. Fortunately the show was much better than that. It still is in the new season. But I was driving down the street in Hollywood a few weeks before it premiered and a bus pulled up alongside me. I looked over and there is Shahi on the side of a bus. Announcing the upcoming return of the show. With her finger in her mouth. I am watching in spite of the ad rather than because of it.

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: International Feature Film

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

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

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

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

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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

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

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

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.5

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Bad Boys for Life
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actress

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

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Renée Zellweger
Photo: LD Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Could Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

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

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

1.5

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Intrigo: Death of an Author
Photo: Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Weathering with You
Photo: GKIDS

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Awards

2020 Oscar Nomination Predictions

We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

We were so sure that last year’s Oscars would be the last Oscars. Okay, not really, but the endless parade of stupid decisions to improve a show that no one who watches thinks ought to be anything other than the silly, dated, gaudy thing it’s always been gave us no confidence in its future. Nor, for that matter, did the Academy’s utter acquiescence to the Golden Globes’s selection process, rubber-stamping the latter ceremony’s much-derided choices of Bohemian Rhapsody for best drama (!) and Green Book for best comedy (!!) by allowing those films to become the two biggest winners of Oscar night. As it turns out, only one of the many lame suggestions proffered by the AMPAS’s board of directors actually came to pass, if only temporarily. It’s the accelerated calendar that shortened this year’s Oscar season and forced everyone (including us) to scramble to get ahead of the much-tightened deadline. So, like Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers, we’ll get right to the heart of the matter.


Best Picture

Ford v. Ferrari

If there was ever a year where we’d feel comfortable going with fewer than eight nominees here, something the Oscars haven’t done since the expansion beyond five a decade ago, this would be that year. From festivals to critics’ awards to the ongoing guild nominations, such has been the uninterrupted love streak for four specific films—Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—that it’s easy to imagine the quartet hoovering away enough of those necessary first-place votes to leave almost no room for the remaining candidates.

Did we say four? Maybe make that six, since the last few days have proven to us that both 1917, which upset for the best drama and best director Golden Globes, and, arguably, Joker, which earned the most BAFTA nominations, are firing on all necessary cylinders. We’re still not entirely sure that the love for Joker’s incel overtures isn’t more of a European thing (beyond the BAFTAs, its strongest endorsement came from its surprising Golden Lion triumph at the Venice Film Festival) and that the majority of American’s cultural gatekeepers aren’t repulsed.

But a hit is a hit is a hit, which is why we’re also predicting a surprise nod for this year’s foremost Dad Movie™, James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, and would be likely to predict the same for an even bigger hit, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, if only its devilish depiction of the underlying racism residing within even the most well-meaning moneyed white people didn’t hit so close to home. And, of course, were it not for the alternative chance for voters to instead shoot broadly satirical, and safely historical, Nazis in a barrel.

Will Be Nominated: Ford v. Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: Bombshell, Little Women, and Knives Out


Best Director

Pedro Almodóvar

No nomination gave us more reason to believe that AMPAS’s cleaning up of its voting roster may have actually changed things than Paweł Pawlikowski’s for best director last year, over the likes of Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly. Sure, the directors branch has always been among the most likely to nominate foreign-language candidates, once the seal was broken in the ‘60s during Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman’s heyday. But last year everyone knew their due diligence would be taken care of by Roma’s Alfonso Cuarón, and yet they still nominated a second foreign prospect, marking only the second time that’s ever happened, after Lina Wertmuller and Bergman earned nods for 1976’s Seven Beauties and Face to Face, respectively.

That, after Wertmuller, only four other female directors have been nominated isn’t of itself the kiss of death for Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Céline Sciamma, Lorene Scafaria, Mati Diop, Chinonye Chukwu, Olivia Wilde, Alma Har’el, Claire Denis, Kasi Lemmons, Melina Matsoukas, or Joanna Hogg. But the fact that BAFTA and the DGA could both assess a year with not just one top-drawer distaff candidate but legitimately more than a dozen, and still come up with nothing but penis sure feels like it.

The AMPAS branch of directors, though, still feels one or two steps hipper than the room. Maybe not hip enough to give the Safdie brothers their due, but we at least expect them to hold their noses about giving their slot to the director of The Hangover movies, and to stand another foreign director alongside the given Bong Joon-ho. Of the many options, we feel pretty bullish about longtime Academy favorite Pedro Almodóvar, whose Pain and Glory is as much a valedictory lap for elder artists as Tarantino and Scorsese’s offerings.

Will Be Nominated: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman; Sam Mendes, 1917; Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory; and Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit; Todd Phillips, Joker; and Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story


Best Actress

Cynthia Erivo

It’s hard to dispute what Mark Harris months ago saw happening in this category, namely that four slots were thought to be all but locked in for white actresses, despite wide acknowledgement that this was a weak year for the category except when it comes to actresses of color. Well, we’re going to dispute it anyway. In particular, we’re nowhere near as convinced as Gold Derby that Charlize Theron is a slam dunk. (Their collective has assigned her even more “predict nomination” points, whatever those are, than winner-elect Renée Zellweger.) Theron’s turn may be more physically transformative than co-star Nicole Kidman’s, but she’s still playing Megyn Kelly, no matter how much Bombshell opts to highlight her lawyerly “objectivity” behind the scenes and only pays momentary lip service to the sort of “Jesus was white, and so is Santa Claus” rhetoric that made her a star at Fox News in the first place.

The film’s underperformance in theaters and with precursors also doesn’t bode well, but it’s hard to imagine even the same voters who handed Green Book the top award siding with Kelly over Saoirse Ronan’s Jo pointedly throwing a passive-aggressive wedding at the end of her book to please an editor in Little Women. Lupita Nyong’o’s precursor run for starring in elevated horror gave us flashbacks, but she has one thing Toni Collette didn’t: that SAG nod. So, we think she emerges from the underworld to stand alongside Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo.

Will Be Nominated: Cynthia Erivo, Harriet; Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story; Lupita Nyong’o, Us; Saoirse Ronan, Little Women; and Renée Zellweger, Judy

Closest Runners-Up: Awkwafina, The Farewell; Charlize Theron, Bombshell; and Alfre Woodard, Clemency


Best Actor

Taron Egerton

On the flip side, we’re unable to shake the specter of Ethan Hawke failing to land an Oscar nod despite winning approximately four times as many critics’ awards as any other single performer last year. There will likely be plenty of time to unpack what AMPAS has to say about masculinity in the midst of the #MeToo backlash, but suffice it for now to say that the alchemy straight actor Antonio Banderas brings to Almodóvar’s queer universe, not just now but for literally a generation, feels particularly out of line with the zeitgeist held up against not just the likes of Joaquin Phoenix’s sociopathic Joker, but arguably almost everyone else we see breezing by Banderas for the nod in the year’s most competitive acting category.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s existential crisis as fading B-list actor Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is also, often explicitly, a crisis of professional virility. The initial post-feminist-friendly reluctance of Adam Driver’s character to do battle with his soon-to-be ex-wife in Marriage Story eventually shatters into what Film Twitter (yes, shallowly) categorized as the wrath of someone who’s never had to deal with being called on their privilege. And, of course, Ford v. Ferrari’s last word on Oscar darling Christian Bale’s Ken Miles comes in the form of one of his tools, predicating his entire existence on “the work.”

And speaking of work, if Rocketman’s Taron Egerton looks increasingly likely to take the most up-for-grabs slot, it’s as much due to his willingness to put in the hours on the glad-handing highway as it is Oscar’s increasingly grudging fondness for male ingénues (Rami Malek, Eddie Redmayne). In the context of all this, we won’t be terribly surprised to see Robert De Niro’s central performance in The Irishman, as a man’s man who way too late in the game realizes the cost of his brand of masculinity, reduced to an also-ran.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale, Ford v. Ferrari; Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; Adam Driver, Marriage Story; Taron Egerton, Rocketman; and Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Closest Runners-Up: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory; Robert De Niro, The Irishman; and Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes


Best Supporting Actress

Margot Robbie

Academy rules prevent Margo Robbie from getting nominated twice here. But the fact that the BAFTAs reserved not one but two slots for her on their ballot, despite all headwinds indicating that the consultants and publicists pulling the strings on the campaign trail had fully installed Bombshell as “the one” for Robbie’s Oscar chances this year, feels an awful lot like Kate Winslet in 2008 to us. As you recall, everyone fell into line with the narrative that she was to be nominated for lead actress for Revolutionary Road and supporting actress for The Reader. And as you recall, the Academy didn’t like the former film and found the latter downright irresistible, and so they went their own way. That’s the benefit of being the Oscars. (Everything else is called a “precursor” because they’re not the Oscars.)

We don’t need to tell you of the sizable overlap between BAFTA’s membership and AMPAS’s for you to take a wild guess as to which of Robbie’s two contending films is better liked. Also, the backlash against those who would dare point out Robbie’s Sharon Tate, aside from her feet, has a lot less to do in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood than in Bombshell is very much in the air. I mean, we’re that close to including Anna Paquin among our list of closest runners-up, specifically because of the volume among those decrying her lack of dialogue in The Irishman.

Will Be Nominated: Laura Dern, Marriage Story; Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit; Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers; Florence Pugh, Little Women; and Margot Robbie, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Closest Runners-Up: Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; and Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell


Best Supporting Actor

Alan Alda

About this category, we have roughly as much to say as Anna Paquin, or maybe Joe Pesci, whose uncharacteristically verbose acceptance speech took everyone by surprise at the New York Film Critics Circle gala this week. Five slots, and Parasite’s Song Kang-ho aside, Oscar’s elder statesmen look to fill them all. The dual nominations for Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira last year would seem to portend good things for Song—to say nothing of SAG’s perception-altering (and still mind-blowing) nomination of Bong Joon-ho’s film for best ensemble cast over the likes of Marriage Story, Little Women, and Knives Out, but neither of Roma’s actresses faced as much competition in their fields for others’ valedictory victory laps.

Even more so than in best actress, this category simply has four slots all but reserved already. For the fifth, BAFTA and the Golden Globes went for Anthony Hopkins as Bad Pope, and SAG opted for Jamie Foxx as Good Incarnate. We’re expecting Oscar voters to go somewhere in the middle: Alan Alda, a welcome breath of fresh air playing the one lawyer in Marriage Story who recognizes how the whole system is rigged, unfair, and predatory, and who yet still possesses enough humanity to regale his client with a long-winded joke (on the clock, naturally).

Will Be Nominated: Alan Alda, Marriage Story; Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Al Pacino, The Irishman; Joe Pesci, The Irishman; and Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Closest Runners-Up: Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy; Song Kang-ho, Parasite; and Sam Rockwell, Jojo Rabbit


Best Adapted Screenplay

Little Women

You may have noticed that we’re not yet convinced that Little Women is going to pull a Phantom Thread as the late-breaker that gets ignored by most precursors only to finally arrive at the station when it comes time for Oscar nominations. But Greta Gerwig’s updating of Louisa Mae Alcott’s universe for modern sensibilities feels like the frontrunner here, alongside Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, which at approximately 4,680 pages of script earns the spot on ream-girth alone.

While it’s all iffy territory beyond those two, we actually feel pretty good about the WGA’s nominees enough to quell our reservations about leaving off the crowd-pleasing, feminist antics of Hustlers and the, we guess, Catholic-pleasing antics of The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit and Joker were both written or co-written by the films’ directors, which never hurts, and this is one of the few categories where we could see the subtleties of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s treatise on masculinity trumping the revving of Ford v. Ferrari’s.

Will Be Nominated: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Little Women

Closest Runners-Up: Ford v. Ferrari, Hustlers, and The Two Popes


Best Original Screenplay

Knives Out

We can’t go five-for-five with WGA on this side of the script categories, as Quentin Tarantino remains ineligible for guild consideration. Also, you know, Booksmart, as we’d be more shocked to see that one included on the Oscar roster than we would be to see Tarantino left off. Because, beyond Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Parasite, there are already way too many candidates that fit the classic template for original screenplays that earn their movies its only Oscar nod out there, among them Rian Johnson’s riotous Knives Out, the Safdie brothers and Ronald Bronstein’s unrelenting Uncut Gems, and Lulu Wang’s nuanced The Farewell. Johnson’s political whodunit hybrid is in with a bullet syringe filled with morphine, but the other two look vulnerable to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, filled as it is with copious speechifying, and (again) Pedro Almodóvar’s don’t-call-it-a-swan song Pain and Glory.

Will Be Nominated: Knives Out, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Pain and Glory, and Parasite

Closest Runners-Up: The Farewell, Uncut Gems, Us

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